Why I celebrate Christmas (Saturnalia)

TheHonestAtheist December 1, 2017
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Origins of Christmas

Christmas is one of my favorite times of the year. The festivities, the general goodwill and accord among people, the family, and the intention to treat one's fellow man with respect and deference are all such niceties. However, many atheists bemoan Christmas and the ludicrous traditions it imposes, in addition to its strong connection to Christianity. I think it worthwhile, however, to educate my reader on the beginnings of Christmas, why I celebrate it, and how utterly pagan it actually is--which is one reason I'm content to celebrating it.

The first thing to look at is where the actual holiday got started. Some scholars cite dies natalis solis invicti as the origin (the birthday of the unconquerable sun), but I believe one can look further back. Much like Thanksgiving, its origins are nothing like what is prescribed or honored. Christmas did not start with Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus in Bethlehem. It started with the Roman worship of the god, Saturn, and the festival was called Saturnalia.

I for one, have always wondered where many of our strange Christmas traditions originated--traditions that only happen at Christmastime--when they have little or nothing to do with Santa Claus or Jesus' birth.

For instance, Christmas trees seem a weird way to store Christmas gifts (which I'll get to in a second). As it turns out, Saturn was the Roman deity of agriculture and many of our traditions surround the worship of the autumn harvest. The Christmas tree was not brought indoors but was decorated with ornaments in the shapes of stars, symbolic suns, and faces of the god, Janus. Other forms of greenery--garlands, wreaths, etc.-- were hung over doorways and windows as worship to the harvest bestowed.

Some of the most common Christmas foods are also related to the god, Saturn. Figgy pudding, dates, and nuts were common Roman snacks. Decorated cakes at the time are similar to our decorations of Christmas cookies, as they also took meaningful shapes: fertility symbols, suns, moons, stars, and livestock.

Christmas clothing originated with Saturnalia dress. Wearing greenery and expensive clothes was part of the festival. A common piece of headwear was a red felt cap which has morphed into our Christmas stocking cap.

Much of the festival focused on the sun and lights, which is why we have the lighting of candles and now, Christmas lights. The light symbolized a thirst for truth and knowledge.

Saturnalia, in Roman times, was a public holiday, closing schools, places of work, and courts. There was a common refrain among passerby to each other, "Io, Saturnalia," which meant something like, "hey, Saturnalia!"

The legend of Santa Claus has grown year by year, but its origins can be traced to the elected lord of the Saturnalia festival called the "Lord of Misrule." Saturnalia, much like Christmas's label as the "most wonderful time of the year"--was considered the best days of the year.

Listen to how the Greek poet, Libanius, described the festival:

You would find, young men, that this festival extends everywhere that the Roman Empire extends . . . This festival blooms in all the plains and hills, in all the mountains, meadows and rivers in which there are boats and sailors and even in the sea . . . as sailors and travelers cut through the waves and simultaneously celebrate the festival. . . . For a certain desire of extravagance takes hold of men, so that although during the rest of the year they delight in the accumulation of wealth, during the festival they delight in making a different kind of profit through grand expenditures. . . . For it is by the custom of this festival that they eat and drink more than usual and those that do these things have done the very things which the festival would want them to do. During the festival the earth is full of honors and of men honoring each other with gifts and hospitality . . . The roads and highways in the countryside are full of stuff, some are full of men, others are full of beasts and the covered and narrowed streets in the city are full of the same things as well as things still more precious. And it is an equal delight for some, both to give and receive; for others, if it should not be possible to receive, it is still sweet to give according to one’s ability. Just as the flowers make the earth beautiful in the spring, thus gifts coming everywhere from every place make the earth beautiful during the Kalends. . . . What is more, the days of the festival delay trials, indictments and punishments both by closing the doors of the courthouses and by closing the mouths of accusers. . . . This is also a great feature of the festival, that it becomes a teacher of men, that they not cling excessively to their gold, but rather to give it up and put it into the hands of others.1

When it comes to most of these descriptions, a look at our holiday seems tame in comparison, but it is easy to see similarties even more striking when you recall to mind the charicature of the ghost of Christmas present in Charles Dicken's popular A Christmas Carol.

To say that Christmas was just a rewrite of Saturnalia would be unfair, but Christmas plagiarizes so many elements it's hard to say Christmas was not influenced by the pagan festival.

Why I Celebrate

All of this is to say, I see no reason why one who is secular can't celebrate it. I don't espouse a belief in Santa Claus or God and don't try to deceive adults or children to believe either. But I love the food, the festivity, the time with family, and the general "good feel" that accompanies the holidays. I don't have any problem saying "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Holidays." I do have a problem with those saying that the only thing important in Christmas is Jesus' birth, because, let's face it, Jesus probably wasn't born in December, and he didn't do much anyway (I deny that there was a Scriptural version of the Jesus Christians know and worship). Furthermore, if Christ is the reason, why all the other traditions that have nothing to do with him?

I will celebrate Christmas, but not because I think Christ is a part of Christmas, but because I like Christmas trees.

As R. Elisabeth Cornwell so aptly put it:

Celebration is not owned by any one culture and especially not by any one religion. It is part of our humanity.


1Libanius, and Mark J. B. Wright. "Appendix: Libanios, Oration IX: On the Kalends." De Gruyter. De Gruyter, 19


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