The Pagan Origins of Christmas? Saturnalia (Dec. 17~23): Pre-Christian Holidays in Ancient Rome

IO SATVRNALIA! What’s going on guys? This is TIMOTHEVS! IO SATVRNALIA! What’s going on guys? This is TIMOTHEVS! That’s the traditional phrase the ancient
Romans shouted during the Saturnalia celebrations of December 17 ~ 23. Apart from exchanging gifts, eating, drinking
and singing, the participants engaged in playing games with dice or knucklebones, either for
money or for nuts. The typical headwear associated with these
holidays was the pileus, a conical felt cap. The pileus can also be commonly seen on depictions
of certain mythological figures e.g. Ulixes (ΟΔΥΣΣΕΥΣ) and the Dioscuri (ΔΙΟΣΚΟΥΡΟΙ). The Dioscuri are often called “saviours”,
so it is no surprise that their typical headgear is seen as a symbol of liberation. A slave would also wear a pileus when he was
manumitted by his master. The Saturnalia period was seen as a time of
liberty, so slaves were allowed to do and say more than usual. By the way, the pileus worn by the Dioscuri
and freedmen was most likely considered to be different from the Phrygian pileus. The Phrygian type has a pointed tip that extends
forward and it was associated with Orientals, especially with the Trojans. In Greek and Roman art, this Phrygian cap
was used to emphasise the eastern origin of certain mythological figures like Attis and
Mythras for example. The Saturnalia were named after Saturnus. This is the God that was immortalised in the
English “Saturday” and Dutch “Zaterdag”. According to legend, Saturnus was banned from
mount Olympus after He was defeated and dethroned by His son Iuppiter as a revenge for eating
His other children and attempting to eat Iuppiter Himself. According to some accounts, He then fled to
Italy by ship, where He taught the people how to work the field and became King alongside
Ianus [x Ovidius. Fasti: January I.]. His reign was believed to be a Golden Age
of peace and freedom. When, one day, He suddenly disappeared, Ianus
commissioned a statue in His likeness that was to be worshipped from then on. He also organised the Saturnalia in His honour,
to remind people of the equality everyone had enjoyed under His reign. Modern writers tend to emphasise the element
of “role reversal” when talking about the Saturnalia, often to draw a parallel with
a similar customs of the middle ages or later. While there are a few examples in Roman literature
that can be interpreted as instances of the slave becoming the master, it’s actually
the element of social equality that takes the foreground in most Roman reports. The fact that slaves were allowed to wear
the cap of a freedman is easily explained as a symbol of them becoming equal to their
masters, but it is hard to explain how this would symbolise a reversal of the roles. Equality also makes more sense than role reversal
in light of the temporary return to the social order of the reign of Saturnus. The cult statue of the temple of Saturnus
in Rome had its feet tied together with wool throughout the year, but on the day of His
festival, the wool was removed as a symbol of the temporary restoration of His power. Depictions of Saturnus are not very common,
but the ones that do exist are quite similar. He is typically shown as a bearded man with
His head covered. Interestingly, sacrifices to Him were made
in the Greek manner, meaning that the priest himself would not cover his head during the
ritual. In His hand, Saturnus carries a sickle, as
the symbol of His agricultural function. It also reminds us of the myth where He castrates
His father Caelus (ΟΥΡΑΝΟΣ ) to punish Him. It also reminds us of the myth where He castrates
His father Caelus (ΟΥΡΑΝΟΣ ) to punish Him. According to another Saturnalia legend, early
inhabitants of Latium sacrificed human heads to Dis Pater and men to Saturnus because they
had been told to do so by an oracle. When the Demigod Hercules witnessed this barbaric
custom on His journey through Italy, He reinterpreted the Greek words of the oracle so that the
cruel sacrifices could be replaced with benign ones: Henceforth, Dis Pater would get masks
and Saturnus would get candles. Several Roman authors mention candles as gift
for the Saturnalia and masks also seem to have played a role. In conclusion, I would like to talk about
the link between the Saturnalia and Christmas. There certainly are many similarities between
the two, like the decorating of the house with greenery, the symbolism of candles, the
exchanging of gifts, the tradition of singing songs and perhaps even the bearded winter
visitors Saturnus and Santa Claus respectively, but we should be careful not to exaggerate
the continuity of these customs. Many people seem to want to insist that the
modern Christmas celebrations are nothing more than a Christianised version of the Saturnalia
or alternatively the Germanic Yule tide celebrations. But we should be aware of the fact that for
most of these customs, there is a period of hundreds of years -more than 1000 in some
cases- without any evidence of continuity between certain ancient traditions and their
modern equivalents. It seems therefore more likely that most similarities
are either due to a basic human urge, e.g. the urge to celebrate during the coldest period
of the year (as similar traditions exist in countries that are nowhere near Europe like
China and Japan) or due to fairly recent revivalist efforts (and when I say “recent”, I mean “Renaissance” or later). It would be unfair to our ancestors of the
past 1500 years to claim that they were somehow less creative than our ancestors from antiquity. One does not need an education in any kind
of paganism to get inspired by the changes we witness in nature around us as seasons
pass by. I argue that’s just human instinct. To me, it seems perfectly possible for traditions
that appear somewhat pagan to have originated in a society that was predominantly Christian. Alright, that was it for this video guys! If you enjoyed it, please like, share, comment
and subscribe for more videos! If you want more information on the pictures
I used or if you want the check out my sources, feel free to have a look at my blog. The link is in the description! So, enjoy your end of the year celebrations
-if any- and I’ll see you soon! This was TIMOTHEVS, thanks for watching!

Stephen Childs


  1. Just noticed I misspoke! It's "December 17" instead of "December 15" obviously! I can't believe I missed that! (°_°)
    So the correct dates would be: December 17 – December 23.

  2. Very informative and great points made here. By the way I didn't even notice you misspeaking lol

  3. For another video on Christmas celebrations in pagan times, check ou this link:

  4. Io Saturnalia Praise be to Lord God Saturnus Almighty Father Musical Deity and Divine King who does what we see right which is Holiness Freedom of Suffering and Love. Salvè tepio 7777777

  5. The euhemerist text you have stated is a for play and fiction on Saturnus Who's Lord God not Lesser being.

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