It’s about this time of year that I like to remind my bloggites that Christians co-opted pagan holidays, better to ease the superstitious into switching cults with a minimum of jarring religious events.
Or so they tell me.
In Rome, Saturnaliaa holiday in honor of Saturn, god of agriculturewas celebrated. Beginning in the week leading up to the winter solstice and continuing for a full month, Saturnalia was a hedonistic time, when food and drink were plentiful and the normal social order was turned upside down. For a month, slaves would become masters. Peasants were in command of the city. Business and schools were closed so that everyone could join in the fun. In addition, members of the upper classes often celebrated the birthday of Mithra, god of the sun, on December 25. For some Romans, Mithras birthday was the most sacred day of the year. In the early years of Christianity, Easter was the main holiday; the birth of Jesus was not celebrated. In the fourth century, church officials decided to institute the birth of Jesus as a holiday. Unfortunately, the Bible does not mention date for his birth. Pope Julius I chose December 25 in an effort to adopt and absorb the traditions of the pagan Saturnalia festival. Holding Christmas at the same time as traditional winter solstice festivals increased the chances that Christmas would be popularly embraced. On Christmas, believers attended church, then celebrated raucously in a drunken, carnival-like atmosphere similar to todays Mardi Gras. Each year, a beggar or student would be crowned the lord of misrule and eager celebrants played the part of his subjects. The poor would go to the houses of the rich and demand their best food and drink. If owners failed to comply, their visitors would most likely terrorize them with mischief. Christmas became the time of year when the upper classes could repay their real or imagined debt to society by entertaining less fortunate citizens.