We’ve been getting well and truly into the festive spirit throughout December here at MeMeMe (if you need any last minute gifts, check out our Ultimate Christmas Book List!) But with the big day rapidly approaching we thought it would be a good time to pause and reflect on a subject that is often debated at this time of year: the true meaning of Christmas.
As families come together at Christmas time, one thing can almost always be counted on… the inevitable disagreement over religion, politics, Donald Trump… the future of GBBO and this year perhaps… who should have won Strictly!
You see one of the MeMeMe team in particular is decidedly sceptical of most religious subjects, holidays included. As it happens, she’s also a history buff and has a Methodist minister for a mother.
These differences in view she tells us, often lead to some amusing situations and comical stories throughout the year, but our curiosity was piqued when it transpired that the pair of them have been having the same discussion (read: polite argument) every year on Christmas Day for almost two decades!
The topic at hand? What do our Christmas traditions really mean?
Both of these women absolutely love Christmas time, but for very different reasons. In the words of our agnostic-leaning teamie:
“Christmas means different things to each of us, but it still means the same thing; it’s a time for good food, good cheer, good will, gifts, generosity, and decking the proverbial halls.”
Fair enough… but then she said something else…
“Christmas hasn’t always been about Christ.”
Now we were rather under the impression that it was, especially being as it is named after him.
Intrigued, we decided to dig into the subject a little deeper…
Saturnalia and the Winter Solstice
Turns out, that while Christians have long since celebrated the birth of Christ on the 25th of December, what many of us don’t realise is that there were actually festivities going on at this time long before the birth of Christ and the spread of Christianity.
By our modern calendar the Winter Solstice falls on December 21st, however by the old Roman calendar it fell on December 25th.
For hundreds if not thousands of years prior to Christ, people celebrated dies natalis solis invicti, the ‘birthday of the unconquered sun’, on the shortest day of the year by lighting enormous bonfires. These were votive fires for the dying sun, intended to warm it and ensure it burnt brightly in the year ahead.
Another celebration taking place at this time was Saturnalia, a harvest festival in honour of Saturn, a Roman deity. It was a joyous time during which no business was conducted. Instead the people spent their time feasting, giving gifts, attending parties, and generally revelling a carnivalesque atmosphere.
Sounds familiar right?
The point of all this debauchery and carolling was to send a message to Mother Earth that everyone was pretty much sick of winter and it was time to bring on the spring.
Saturnalia it seems was quite a spectacle, and it culminated in the total subversion of social norms: masters served slaves at the table, and generosity to the poor was actively encouraged. The wealthy paid the month’s rent for the poor, beggars dressed like kings, clad in the clothes of their masters, and the aristocrats walked the streets in the rags usually worn by their serfs.
Digging even deeper, we found that there is considerable debate among scholars and religious leaders as to whether Christmas is actually Saturnalia!
There are certainly striking similarities between the two festivals, central to which is the notion of generosity and goodwill towards your fellows, regardless of their socio-economic status.
If it were simply a matter of the dates being the same, we might easily dismiss it as coincidence, but there are so many parallels between the two that we can’t help but wonder – are our Christian traditions actually based on a Pagan celebration?
The birth of Christ and the rise of christianity
The word ‘pagan’ is quite misleading, and has a lot of connotations, many of which can be negative. Some people find pagan practices quaint, offensive, or simply out-dated. They are the beliefs that existed before the birth of Christ and the rise of Christianity; very important to people in the pre-Christian era, but no longer relevant to those who have chosen to follow Christ. The Roman Empire was originally Pagan, with a pantheon of deities just like Saturn, each representing different elements of life and the world. Saturn, for example, was a harvest deity, worshipped at that time of year in celebration of the end of a bountiful harvest.
It wasn’t until 312AD, when the Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity and of course that change didn’t spread across the Empire in a single night. Before this great religious transition the Romans were actually quite notorious for persecuting Christians. Let’s not forget it was the Roman Prefect Pontius Pilate who condemned Jesus to crucifixtion.
It would be a century or more until Christianity really took a foothold in the Roman Empire and until then, Pagan traditions continued, including the merriment of Saturnalia, and celebrations for the Winter Solstice.
As Christians were celebrating the birth of their saviour, Pagans continued to celebrate the end of the year, much as they had every year for countless centuries before Christ was born.
The Emperor Constantine had been raised in the cult of sol invicta, the very deity to which the winter solstice celebration was dedicated. It’s not a huge leap of faith to assume that individuals who had, at one time, been Pagan might retain some of the familiar traditions they so enjoyed, even as they converted to a new religion.
This is doubly true when we consider the core value of Saturnalia – generosity, the humbling of the rich, and the honouring of the poor. It’s difficult to think of a more appropriate way to honour the birth of a saviour notorious for walking barefoot among his people, refusing all worldly possessions, and ultimately giving his life to ensure the spiritual wellbeing of others.
So how did we come to celebrate one event and not the other?
Christmas was originally celebrated on January 6th, but over time the seasonal celebrations of Saturnalia, the Winter Solstace, and Christmas, all of which were close together, merged to become a single Christian festival: Christmas.
This was partly due to the interpretation of certain aspects of the Jewish scripture that indicate December 25th was the correct day for the birth of Christ, and partly because so many people were already celebrating at this time.
It’s a lot easier to slowly transform an existing festival into something else than it is to convince people to completely stop celebrating one thing, and start celebrating something new.
And so these two traditions existed in tandem for a time, one ancient and well-established, the other new and still finding its feet. The influence of the elder is evident in the development of the younger, and so to some extent the answer is yes, many Christmas traditions are ‘Pagan’, in that their origins were not originally Christian, but adopted by Christians as they were forming their religious doctrine and rites and traditions of their own.
The true origins of our Christmas traditions…
Of course, not all Christian traditions have their roots in Saturnalia and other Pagan winter festivals, but a remarkable number do, and the original meaning behind things we do every year is fascinating. Here are some of our favourites…
During the winter, when it seemed everything was dying, only the evergreens remained. No matter how cold or dark it became, fir trees and other evergreens retained their lush green colour and vibrant life. Evergreen boughs and often whole trees were brought inside to hasten the spring, the return of life, and the sun.
In ancient times the long nights and bitter cold of winter were feared. People believed the sun was dying. They lit bonfires and candles to keep the sun (and themselves) warm through the winter and ensure it came back to life, hot and strong, in the spring. Candles were placed all over the house, inside and out, and often hung from the evergreen boughs that had also been brought inside for the season. Over time, these little lights transformed into the modern electric fairy lights we use today.
Much like the Christmas tree, wreaths date back to a time long before Christianity, when they were made and often worn like a crown, in honour of the Sun god. The evergreen leaves used symbolised life, while the circular shape represented immortality and the eternal cycling of the seasons. Candles were often added to wreaths set on tables as additional offerings for the sun.
Fruit and Nuts
It’s traditional to have fruit, nuts, and other sweet treats at Christmas. This tradition dates back at least as far as Saturnalia, when the festival included special games involving exotic dwarf dancers and female gladiators (among other things). The games always began with fruits, nuts and sweet items being thrown to the crowds who had gathered to watch.
And the true meaning of Christmas?
The truly fascinating part of this story is that the Winter Solstice is still celebrated by Pagans around the world today, and the holidays have now switched places, with Christmas stepping into the limelight and celebrations of the solstice being seen as the province of less widely practiced religions and hippies.
But does it really matter?
The holiday season – no matter where it’s origins lie – has a way of bringing people together, even people who are normally fundamentally at odds. Our pagan daughter dines with her Methodist mother, exchanging gifts, singing songs, playing games, and enjoying the sparkling lights of the Christmas tree. To each of them, these things mean different things and are celebrated for different reasons, yet oddly their meaning is still the same.
Peace on earth, goodwill to all, and to all a good night.