Tag Archives: saturnalia

Science Santa History: The origins of Christmas Customs

This is a series of articles about Christmas we here at ZME Science will be doing all December. Our goal is to present interesting, little known facts about the origins and history of Christmas.

Christmas – not the birth of Jesus, but a Roman celebration

Artistic representation of the Saturnalia.

Artistic representation of the Saturnalia.

There is still a lot of debate around this issue and it’s pretty much impossible to accurately pinpoint a date, but it’s highly unlikely that Jesus was born on the 25th of December, year 1 AD, as we’ve previously explained in this article. Scientifically and historically speaking, Christmas is probably based on a Roman celebration – Saturnalia.

Romans celebrated the holiday of Saturnalia, a week long period during which Roman courts were closed, and Roman law dictated that no one could be punished for damaging property or injuring people during the weeklong celebration. Celebrations included feasting and singing (often naked in the streets), but also violence, rape, and sometimes, even human sacrifices. The Saturnalia took place between December 17-25.

The Christians wanted to attract as many people as possible into their religion, but they also realized that the Romans aren’t going to give up on their favorite holiday so instead, they tried to incorporate it into Christianity; however, there was nothing about the celebration that was Christian, so they just chose the end date – 25th of December. To add more significance, they ‘labeled’ it as the birth date of Jesus.

The origins of the Christmas Tree

photo credit: Gueоrgui

photo credit: Gueоrgui

There’s really a lot of talk around the origins of the Christmas Tree. Some people claim it’s a German thing, some people claim it was introduced by Martin Luther, but the truth is, the first customs related to Christmas trees are clearly non-Christian.

Pagans had long worshipped trees in the forest, or brought them into their homes and decorated them. In Poland and nearby areas, there was an ancient pagan custom of suspending at the ceiling a branch of fir, spruce or pine. The branches were decorated with apples, nuts, cookies, colored paper, stars, ribbons, etc. People believed in the tree magical powers linked with harvesting and success in the next year.

Furthermore, as Enciclopedia Britannica explains:

“The use of evergreen trees, wreaths, and garlands to symbolize eternal life was a custom of the ancient Egyptians, Chinese, and Hebrews. Tree worship was common among the pagan Europeans and survived their conversion to Christianity in the Scandinavian customs of decorating the house and barn with evergreens at the New Year to scare away the devil and of setting up a tree for the birds during Christmastime.”

Celtic Druids tied fruit to the branches of live trees, and baked cakes in the shape of fish, birds and other animals, to offer to their god, Woden. However, the Christians once again adapted, and the Church incorporated traditions into the religion, unifying the similar, but slightly different traditions into the Christmas Tree we have today.

Mistletoe and Christmas

The mistletoe is entirely Norse in origin. Baldur is a god in Norse mythology, and a son of the god Odin and the goddess Frigg. He has numerous brothers, including Thor and Váli. At one point, his mother feared that something bad would come to him ,so he made every object in every realm vow never to hurt Baldr. All objects made this vow except mistletoe. Frigg had thought it too unimportant and nonthreatening to bother asking it to make the vow. Baldur was later killed with an arrow made from mistletoe. Druid rituals use mistletoe to poison their human sacrificial victim. Somehow, in Christianity… kissing under the mistletoe became a thing.

The origins of Christmas presents

In Pre-Christian Rome, the emperors compelled their most despised citizens to bring offerings and gifts during the Saturnalia (in December) and Kalends (in January). Later, this custom expanded to gift giving to the general population. The Catholic Church gave this custom a Christian flavor by re-rooting it in the supposed gift-giving of Saint Nicholas – which we’ll discuss in another, separate article.

The origins of caroling

During the Saturnalia, the rich feasted, consuming incredibly large quantities of food and alcoholic drinks. The not so fortunate would sometimes gather and sing at these feasts, in the hope of receiving something. This custom was probably perpetuated throughout the ages, as there are some mentions of the custom in various times, in various places in Europe.

There is another plausible explanation: the intoxicated people would often get naked and sing in the streets – I guess it depends what kind of caroling you want to do.

Santa Claus and Saint Nicholas


Our idea of Santa Claus has been constantly evolving, for many centuries. photo credit: Hello, I am Bruce

Santa Claus has changed so incredibly much during the years it’s almost incredibly to think where he started from. Almost certainly, the ‘original’ Santa Claus was Saint Nicholas of Myra was a 4th-century Greek Christian bishop of Myra (now Demre) in Lycia, a province of the Byzantine Anatolia, now in Turkey. Nicholas was famous for his generous gifts to the poor, in particular presenting the three impoverished daughters of a pious Christian with dowries so that they would not have to become prostitutes. We will, however talk more about Santa Claus in another, separate article.