Saturnalia: The precursor to Christmas?

Recently, I wrote an essay entitled that discussed the research of Associate Professor of History, William Tighe, of Muhlenberg College which he published in an essay entitled "Calculating Christmas". This essay raised a flood of responses that I have seen both privately and on other webpages. The general tone of the objection was as voiced in a comment to my initial post by Ian Thorpe who said, "In fact the Roman midwinter festival, starting on December 17 and going on for up to two weeks, was called SAturnalia."

While it is certainly true that Saturnalia was celebrated by the Romans at least as early as the First Century A.D. (or C.E., for those of you versed in the new, more politically correct method of describing A.D.), the fact that an ancient Roman festival existed at about the same time as the later Christmas holiday does not mean that the latter is based on the former.

First, the real question that needs to be asked is whether the Christians who arrived at the date of the birth of Jesus had an independent reason for choosing to celebrate Christmas on December 25. If they did, then the fact that the date may have coincided with another festival celebrated by other pagan cultures becomes merely coincidental. I think that Professor Tighe has done an admirable job of demonstrating that the December 25 date was chosen for reasons completely independent of any festivals that may have been chosen on that date, and so, it appears, that Christmas' timing vis-a-vis Saturnalia, if it exists at all, is entirely coincidental.

Second, the question arises whether Saturnalia was, in fact, celebrated on December 25? Every source I checked on Saturnalia had the celebration commencing on December 17 -- a full eight days before the date chosen by the early Christians for the celebration of Christmas. Exactly how long did the celebration of Saturnalia continue? The sources conflict on the length of the Saturnalia celebration. According to Wikipedia's entry on Saturnalia (which is of dubious value) and Fundamentals' entry on Saturnalia (which borrowed from which, I don't know), Saturnalia was celebrated originally only on December 17, but "over the years, it expanded to a whole week, up to 23 December." It then notes that it wasn't until 274 A.D. that Emperor Aurelian put the celebration as December 25 -- and this celebration, as pointed out by Professor Tighe, was an effort by the Roman authorities to co-opt Christmas, not the other way around. agrees that the celebration was expanded over time "from the 17th through 23rd of December."

Circle Sanctuary, a pagan resource, also claims that Saturnalia was celebrated from December 17 to December 23.'s article on Saturnalia agrees that Saturnalia was originally celebrated only on December 17 but was later extended for "a week, despite Augustus' efforts to reduce it to three days, and Caligula's, to five." Of course, a week is only seven days which would have ended the celebration on December 23.

A couple of other sources I found placed the holiday from December 17 to December 24. The only source I found that extended Saturnalia beyond December 25 was the History Channel's page on Saturnalia which said that the celebration extended for a month.

Thus, it appears that the majority of sources agree that Saturnalia celebration ended before December 25. In fact, I decided to check on this with Professor Tighe who graciously answered my questions. To paraphrase Professor Tighe, he noted that the source he used for his fine article, T. J. Talley, The Origins of the Liturgical Year (1986, 1991), agrees that the date for the celebration of Saturnalia did not extend beyond December 24. He then raised the question, appropriately, that if the early hristians were attempting to co-opt Saturnalia, why did they not choose December 17 -- or at least choose a date that fell within the time-frame of Saturnalia? The obvious reason that those dates were not chosen is because the date chosen for the celebration of Jesus' birthday had nothing to do with Saturnalia.

Professor Tighe suggests that the mistaken association of Christmas with Saturnalia arose because of the writings of Epiphanius of Salamis who was very outspoken in his defense of the January 6 date as the appropriate date for the birth of Jesus (a date that Professor Tighe discusses at length in his original article). In defending this date, it was Epiphanius who made the association between Christmas on December 25 and the Roman Saturnalia as a way of characterizing the Western celebration as pagan. It seems clear that Epiphanius' statements were designed to bring disgrace on the celebration of Christmas in the west on December 25 for the purpose of trying to win support for his (minority) view that January 6 should be the real date of celebration. In fact, it appears that Epiphanius was wrong in his belief that Saturnalia fell on December 25.

Thus, it appears that Christmas' association with December 25 had nothing at all to do with Saturnalia. The date was chosen for reasons independent of Saturnalia, the date does not fall during most people's dating of Saturnalia, and the association of Christmas with Saturnalia was based on a polemical writing by a bishop who was seeking to move the celebration of Christmas to the January 6 date. I, for one, am very satisfied that the case is quite strong that the choice of December 25 for the celebration of the Nativity of Our Lord had nothing to do with Saturnalia.


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