It’s that special time of the year when everyone leaves their everyday activities on the side to get together with family in the spirit of sharing and giving. Every business is closed, and it seems that for a couple days life is on pause, since the only thing on people’s mind is to joyfully celebrate God’s intervention. It’s Saturnalia, the feast of Saturn, the Ancient Roman God of agriculture and wine.
Like most of the festivities of its time, Saturnalias were all about hedonism. There was plenty of food and wine, while all social norms and order vanished momentarily. This feast was passed on by the Greeks, who represented Saturn as Cronos. The cult of Saturn became top Roman celebration. A massive party would guarantee a year of good crops and fertile soil to keep the most powerful civilization of the time, and its colonies, afloat.
Despite the empire’s attempts at reducing it to a few days through a law specifying the festivity to last from the 17th to the 23rd of December, the excitement over this celebration made its duration last longer with each year during the first century. At the same time, the small community of Early Christians separated themselves from Jewish traditions and converted the marginalized to their faith.
Traditionally the end of Saturnalia came with a rite related to the arrival of the Winter Solstice, which meant the end of shorter days and the birth of an invincible sun embodied by Mithra, a Persian God worshiped by the upper class and Roman legions.
As persecution continued through the second century, Christianity continued to gain followers and believers among the empire. Eventually it became the official religion of Rome in the third century. Constantine decreed freedom of religion in 313. This new law stopped the persecution and led to a period of great changes in the Empire.
Two years later, Christian motifs where part of battle armor, coins, and most of Roman life; the Latin Cross became the emblem of the empire. There was only one thing missing: the celebration of the origins of the faith, that is, Christmas. Roman traditions went from pagan polytheism to Christian belief in just a few centuries.
Despite no biblical text mentioning Jesus’ birthday, the Birth of Christ was officially celebrated starting 330 A.D. during the rule of Constantine, after the battle on the shores of the Tiber. The regiment claimed to have been guided by a vision when looking at the sun, where they saw the Latin Cross as a sign of victory.
Celebrations for crops, wine, and the start of winter began to take Christian values. The “Birth of the Sun God” was substituted by a stronger following of Jesus. Early Christians saw the king star as a representation of the King of the Jews. Christmas is the feast that survived the decadence of Rome, took hold during the Feudal days of the Middle Ages, and through capitalism reached every corner of the globe as Christianity’s most important tradition.
Translated by María Suárez