Today, ante diem xvi kalendas januarias, is the 1st day of the ancient pagan Roman celebration of Saturnalia. 

Saturnalia was a festival in honour of Saturn.  There were banquets and people wore a soft floppy hat called a pileus.

No business could be conducted, so all the shops and markets were closed.  People would gamble, eat a lot and exchange gifts.  One custom was that masters would serve their slaves.


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Simon Platt says:

    Dear Father,

    I have heard people say that the church began to celebrate Christmas in December as a policy to replace Saturnalia. I have heard other people say that Saturnalia was developed by the Roman pagans as a response to Christmas. Of course I don’t know whom to believe. Can you shed any light on the subject?

  2. Pleased As Punch says:

    Dear Simon Platt,

    I don’t know about the development of Christmas, but I am quite certain that Saturnalia was not a pagan response to it. Saturnalia was, as I recall, already a very old pagan festival by the time Christmas began to be celebrated. We have references to it in Latin literature at least as far back as the first century AD and the first century BC. I don’t have the citations right at my fingertips right now, but I’m sure some judicious googling will yield the right stuff.

  3. Marcin says:

    I think it was Sol Invictus festival that was introduced by emperor Aurelian, possibly as a response to the Nativity. But I really don’t remember details. Wasn\’t it also Card. Ratzinger who wrote something about computation of Nativity, presumambly in The Spirit of Liturgy

    Also take a look at the chapter from The Origins of the Liturgical Year:

  4. Simon Platt says:

    Thanks both. I did a little bit of digging around and, yes, I had my saturnalia and my sol invictus mixed up.

    What concerns me is that the neo pagans seem to imply that Christmas is “really” a pagan festival, somehow appropriated by the church, and I think they thereby seek to diminish the relevance of the feast or the credibility of the church. For example see this page:
    which seems to be the responsibility of the New York Times. I notice that it claims (without any citation) St. John Chrysostom as stating that Christmas was fixed in relation to sol invictus as a matter of convenience. Funnily enough, I think it was correspondence in another newspaper called the “Times” where I first read several years ago of St. John’s preaching that 25 December was the actual date of Our Lord’s birth – as also reported by the Catholic Encyclopaedia ( and which seems consistent with Marcin’s reference.

    I don’t like this sort of sneering, least of all when aimed at the church, so I’d like to know more about the results of reliable scholarship. If any other readers can point me to useful sources I should be very grateful.


  5. Pádraic says:

    Simon, it is dangerous to generalise that much about the followers of the entire range of religious factions classified as ‘neo-paganry’ since neo-pagans almost never have real dogma or a convenient equivalent of the Nicene Creed that codifies a group’s beliefs. It would be like saying all shoes are brown. There are an awful lot of brown shoes on Earth, just as there are an awful lot of willfully dumb neo-pagans, but…

    Neo-pagans, without the benefit of anything resembling the Magisterium of the Church, are not able to be generalised very well at all, and certainly much less so than in generalising about Christians, who usually have a central authority for what is definitively Christian: Sacred Tradition, the word of Yahweh provided in the Scriptures, and so on.

    Mostly the ill-educated teeny-bopper type of neo-pagan will make claims like you described. Most of them are getting their information from books published by Llewellyn Worldwide, the great distributor of fluffy ‘New Age’ nonsense. If we were to have an old-fashioned book burning, Llewellyn Worldwide’s books would be at the top of *my* list. As an avid researcher of (real) ancient pagan religious beliefs and practices, Llewellyn ‘s publications truly irritate me.

    But I digress.

    What we can say about Roman Catholics does not necessarily apply to Anabaptists, yes? Or to Lutherans? Yet they are all (in theory…) ‘Christians’ to greater or lesser degrees. There are a few good points to dogma, and the Roman Catholic Church knows it.

    As for your actual request, the following texts are useful toward answering the more basic questions that you might have about the expression of religious ideas in the Roman Republic and early Empire before the state conversion to Christianity. They are almost exclusively oriented toward those who read in English, as I do not know if you have any other languages.

    James Rives’ text is becoming one of my favourites in this subject. John Scheid’s and Georges Dumézil’s texts listed here contain some conclusions that seem a bit tenuous, and the Dumézil book starts off in a very tedious style, but both texts are useful like the rest provided in the list. The “Religions of Rome” 2-volume set is a *very* valuable reference tool in small doses for those who prefer their source texts in English, but they are not really set up for cover-to-cover reading.

    “Religion in Republican Italy” (Yale Classical Studies)
    edited by Paul Harvey and Celia Schultz.
    Cambridge University Press, 2007

    “Religion in the Roman Empire” (Blackwell Ancient Religions)
    by James Rives
    Wiley-Blackwell, 2006

    “An Introduction to Roman Religion”
    by John Scheid, translated by Janet Lloyd
    Indiana University Press, 2003

    “Religions of Rome: Volume 1: A History”
    by Simon Price, Mary Beard, and John North
    Cambridge University Press, 1998

    “Religions of Rome: Volume 2: A Sourcebook’
    by Simon Price, Mary Beard, and John North
    Cambridge University Press, 1998

    To top off the list, these two texts by Ramsay MacMullen are an excellent primer on the Conversion period. Short, sweet, and full of interesting insights:

    “Christianizing the Roman Empire: (A.D. 100-400)”
    by Ramsay MacMullen
    Yale University Press, 1986

    “Paganism and Christianity: 100-425 A.D.”
    by Ramsay MacMullen
    Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 1992

  6. Pádraic says:

    I nearly forgot to mention H. H. Scullard’s “Festivals and Ceremonies of the Roman Republic”, Cornell University Press, 978-0801414022, 1981. Since the topic introduced by Fr. Z here is the Saturnalia, Scullard’s work is definitely worth mentioning. It is a well regarded text.

  7. Jordan Potter says:

    Simon said: I notice that it claims (without any citation) St. John Chrysostom as stating that Christmas was fixed in relation to sol invictus as a matter of convenience.

    I’ve seen that same alleged Chrysostom quote that you mention:

    “On this day also the birthday of Christ was lately fixed at Rome in order that while the heathen were busy with their profane ceremonies, the Christians might perform their sacred rites undisturbed.”

    I don’t know if this quote was really from Chrysostom, or if it was correctly translated. A couple years ago there was a discussion of this alleged quote in a discussion thread here:

    There seem to be two possible sermons, In diem natalem D. N. Jesu Christi (Migne 49, cols 351-362); and another, perhaps spurious, in MG 56, 385-396. Neither exists in English, as far as I can tell.

    . . . .

    The quotation reads:

    “On this day also the Birthday of Christ was lately fixed at Rome in order that while the heathen were busy with their profane ceremonies, the Christians might perform their sacred rites undisturbed. They call this (December 25th), the Birthday of the Invincible One; but who is so invincible as the Lord? They call it the Birthday of the Solar Disk, but Christ is the Sun of Righteousness.” -St. John Chrysostom, Bishop of Constantinople

    and appears to derive from an entry in William Smith’s Dictionary of Christian Antiquities (pp. 357-8) which reads:

    In the Latin editions of Chrysostom is a homily, wrongly ascribed to him, but probably written not long after his time, in which we read: ‘Sed et Invicti Natalem appellant. Quis utique tam invictus nisi Dominus noster, qui mortem subactam devicit? Vel quod dicunt Solis esse Natalem, ipse est Sol Justitiae, de quo Malachias propheta dixit, Orietur vobis timentibus nomen ipsius Sol Justitiae et sanitas est in pennis ejus.’ [5] (Sermo de Nativitate S. Joannis Baptistae; vol. ii. 1113, ed. Paris, 1570.


    223:5 “But they call it the birthday of the Invincible (i. e., Mithras). Who, however, is invincible if not our Lord, who has conquered death? Further, if they say ‘it is the birthday of the sun,’ He is the sun of righteousness, about whom the prophet Malachi says, ‘Unto you that fear my name shall the sun of righteousness arise with healing in his wings.'” Observe in this passage that the prophet p. 224 thinks of the sun of God after the Babylonian and Egyptian fashion, as having wings which are of a wholesome or healing influence.

    The preceding lines of this quotation from Chrysostom (Hom. 31) plainly state that Christ’s birthday has been fixed upon the day of the birth of Mithras: “On this day (the birthday of Mithras) also the birthday of Christ was lately fixed at Rome in order that whilst the heathen were busied with their profane ceremonies, the Christians might perform their holy rites undisturbed.”

    The old Catholic Encyclopedia article on “Christmas” also seems to have part of this same quote attributed to Chrysostom:

    In the fourth century, Chrysostom, “del Solst. Et Æquin.” (II, p. 118, ed. 1588), says: “Sed et dominus noster nascitur mense decembris . . . VIII Kal. Ian. . . . Sed et Invicti Natalem appelant. Quis utique tam invictus nisi Dominus noster? . . . Vel quod dicant Solis esse natalem, ipse est Sol iustitiæ.” — “But Our Lord, too, is born in the month of December . . . the eighth before the calends of January [25 December] . . ., But they call it the ‘Birthday of the Unconquered’. Who indeed is so unconquered as Our Lord . . .? Or, if they say that it is the birthday of the Sun, He is the Sun of Justice.”

    If anybody could track down the original of this quote and verify the translation, I would greatly appreciate it.

  8. Simon Platt says:

    Thanks everyone for the references. There’s plenty to read, and I shall read at least some of it.

    I notice, thanks to Fr Blake, that this was a topic of discussion online last year, too.

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