The 5 days of Christmas myths Day 3. In this series we’ve been looking at the 5 common myths about Christmas that pop up every year.
The First Two Myths
On day one we saw how early Christians calculated the date of Jesus’ birth. They believed that Jesus was conceived, born and died on the 25th of different months. And they believed that he died on the same day he was conceived. All this is in the writings of the early church fathers and dates to the early 200’s AD.
The next myth we looked at was that early Christians stole the date of Jesus’ birth from the Roman pagan cult of Sol Invictus. We discovered that there were many dates used for this celebration, and that December 25thonly appears well after the early Church fathers were on record believing in that date being Jesus’ birthday.
Today’s Myth: Early Christians Stole The Date Of Saturnalia For Christmas
The myth we’re going to explore today is the idea that early Christians coopted the celebration of Saturnalia and replaced it with Christmas. The story goes that Roman’s celebrated Saturnalia on the 25th of December. In order to lure the pagans away from their gods and to Jesus, the Christians pulled a switch-er-roo on them. They kept some of the pagan practices, but replaced the Saturnalia celebration with Christmas. Sounds plausible, right?
It sounds plausible until you look at the details and the dates. And as we saw with Sol Invictus, the dates are going to cause a problem for this particular theory. For in order to steal the date from the pagans, you first have to show that the pagans were using it prior to the Christians. So, what do we know about Saturnalia?
What Do We Know About Saturnalia?
The simple truth is, we don’t know much about Saturnalia prior to the 5th century. We get our information about Saturnalia at this point from a Roman named Macrobius. His works are the primary source used to gather information about the festival.
From Macrobuis’s writings, we learn that Saturnalia was a 3-day celebration Starting on December 17th that celebrated the god Saturn. Wait, December 17th? That’s not the day we associate with Christmas. Even the last day of the celebration would be far too early to be confused with December 25th. So, where did the idea come from?
Where Did December 25th Come From?
Macrobius also tells of a second festival. He recounts the celebration of Sigillaria. It seems that the original festival of Saturnalia occurred in mid-December. The emperor Augustus then added 3 days of rest to the celebration. Finally, Sigillaria added another few days to the celebration, bringing the total to 7 days. Even with these additions however, you still do not arrive at a December 25th dating.
Again, the dates simply don’t line up. If the Christians were trying to take over Saturnalia, they would have chosen December 17th, not December 25th. And all the information we get on the dating of the pagan festivals comes from the 5th century. There are Christmas sermons being preached by John Chrysostom that date almost 100 years prior to this.
Let’s Have A Party!
Think of it this way. Suppose you had a social rival. That person was throwing a party on December 17th, and you wanted all the guest to not go. So, you invite them to a separate party. But your party occurs not on the 17th, but on the 25th. What do you think would happen?
The guests would most likely wind up going to both parties. Why would you not simply just go to the first party, then go to the second one a week later? It would make perfect sense. It doesn’t work as a substitution.
Here is a summary of the myth that Saturnalia was replaced by Christmas by the early Christians:
- All the information we have about the celebration comes in the fifth Century AD, well after Christianity had been established.
- The original festival was a single day beginning on December 17h.
- Even after being altered and extended, it still never fell on December 25th.
- The early Christians believed Jesus was born on December 25th for reasons unassociated with pagan rituals.
- They developed these ideas in the early 200’s AD, well before any written account of the Roman festival is found.
We’ve now dispelled 3 myths about Christmas, mostly around the dating of December 25th as the time of Jesus’ birth. But what about prior dying and rising gods? The Persian God Mithras was worshipped 700 years prior to Jesus. Wasn’t he born on December 25th? Wasn’t his birth heralded by angels? Didn’t shepherds attend his birth, and wasn’t he born of a virgin too? We’ll take a look at Mithras for our next myth in our 5 days of Christmas myths.