There is a widespread conjecture that the early Christians began celebrating Christmas on December 25 as a response to pagan Roman holidays, such as Saturnalia or the Dies Natalis of Sol Invictus. Given that the Gospels do not record any date for the Nativity, choosing one would have been left to a conjecture by the early church fathers, much like an adopted orphan would have a birth date assigned to her when the actual date is unknown.
Yesterday, I demonstrated how it is more plausible to believe the church fathers chose December 25 not in response to pagan celebrations, but because of its tie in to the date of Jesus's crucifixion, which is the pivotal date of all human history in their eyes. Today, I want to look at what we know about the Roman celebrations to see if they were actually celebrated on December 25th. If they weren't, does it make sense to believe that Christmas was meant to replace them?
Roman Time and SaturnaliaBefore we get into the texts discussing timing, it is important to understand how Romans referenced time. Unlike modern times, whereby we number every day, the Romans divided a month into three parts: the first of a month, known as the Kalends, the middle or Ides of a month (as in "Beware the Ides of March" from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar), and the space in between them known as the Nones. Other dates were referenced as before these three points, so the 25th of December would be eight days before the Kalends of January.1
When studying the ancient reference to Saturnalia, a primary source we have is written by the Roman Macrobius , who lived in the fifth century. His work Saturnalia provides much of the details of the origin stories of the celebration as well as its customs. Ancient texts scholar T.C. Schmidt highlighted this passage from Saturnalia Book 1, chapter 10 giving the dates of the celebration:
Our ancestors restricted the Saturnalia to a single day, the fourteenth before the Kalends of January, but, after Gaius Caesar had added two days to December, the day on which the festival was held became the sixteenth before the Kalends of January, with the result that, since the exact day was not commonly known—some observing the addition which Caesar had made to the calendar and others following the old usage —the festival came to be regarded as lasting for more days than one.
And yet in fact among the men of old time there were some who supposed that the Saturnalia lasted for seven days…
[But] one can infer, then, from all that has been said, that the Saturnalia lasted but one day and was held only on the fourteenth day before the Kalends of January; it was on this day alone that the shout of "Io Saturnalia" would be raised, in the temple of Saturn, at a riotous feast. Now, however, during the celebration of the Saturnalia, this day is allotted to the festival of the Opalia, although the day was first assigned to Saturn and Ops in common.2
The Addition of SigillariaSo Saturnalia was a three-day long feast that began sixteen days before January 1st. Their December was 31 days long as is ours, so that places Saturnalia on December 17, far too early to be mistaken for December 25. However, that isn't the end of the story. Macrobius then notes that another celebration, Sigillaria was celebrated after these three days:
I think that we have now given abundant proof that the festival of the Saturnalia used to be celebrated on only one day, the fourteenth before the Kalends of January, but that it was afterward prolonged to last three days: first, in consequence of the days which Caesar added to the month of December, and then in pursuance of an edict of Augustus which prescribed a series of three rest days for the Saturnalia. The festival therefore begins on the sixteenth day before the Kalends of January and ends on the fourteenth, which used to be the only day of its celebration. However, the addition of the feast of the Sigillaria has extended the time of general excitement and religious rejoicing to seven days.Schmidt in his article provided a translation of chapter ten in its entirety, as dates are referenced throughout. He then concludes:
Macrobius does an excellent job summarizing authorities that were available to him, most of which I think have been lost. His conclusion is quite clear, Saturnalia originally was one day and occurred on the 14th day before the Kalends January, but when Caesar altered the calendar it was extended to three days and started on the 16th, later a new Festival of Sigillaria extended the celebrations to complete seven days, meaning that the Festival ended on either the 10th or ninth day before the Kalends of January depending on how we count. Of course neither of these days fall on the eighth day before the Kalends of January, that is December 25.3
The Dates Don't FitRemember, Macrobius was writing in the fifth century AD and we have Christmas sermons from John Chrysostom preached on December 25th from a century earlier. Yet the dates don't correspond. If Christmas was create to supplant Saturnalia, the Christians would have chosen December 17th. Add to that the references I noted yesterday about the December 25th date stretching all the way back to A.D. 200 and you have a very real dating problem with Saturnalia being the origin date for Christmas.
Imagine a modern church seeking to replace Halloween celebrations by having a Harvest festival on November 8. It wouldn't work! People could celebrate one and then attend the other. The concept of substitution would be fairly ineffective.
I haven't yet discussed the one Roman holiday that actually does land on December 25, which is the Sol Invitus or "The Birth of the Unconquerable Sun." I address that particular claim in this post.
2. Schmidt, T.C., "The dates of Saturnalia (and Sigillaria!) and Christmas". Chronicon.net. T.C. Schmidt. 18 Dec 2010. Web. https://web.archive.org/web/20140721073230/http:/chronicon.net/blog/christmas/the-dates-of-saturnalia-and-sigillaria-and-christmas/
3. Schmidt, 18 Dec 2010.