The True Story of Christmas December 12, 2009

The True Story of Christmas

If you’d like to bone up on the facts and myths about the Christian version of the Christmas story, this (Jewish) website explains everything very nicely.

For example, “How Did Christmas Come to Be Celebrated on December 25?”

Roman pagans first introduced the holiday of Saturnalia, a week long period of lawlessness celebrated between December 17-25. During this period, Roman courts were closed, and Roman law dictated that no one could be punished for damaging property or injuring people during the weeklong celebration. The festival began when Roman authorities chose “an enemy of the Roman people” to represent the “Lord of Misrule.” Each Roman community selected a victim whom they forced to indulge in food and other physical pleasures throughout the week. At the festival’s conclusion, December 25th, Roman authorities believed they were destroying the forces of darkness by brutally murdering this innocent man or woman.

Well, isn’t that pleasant…

(Thanks to Marilin for the link!)

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  • Trace

    (fingers in ears) la-la-la-la…

    Interesting link, thanks.

  • Jeremy

    I actually disagree with the conclusion of the article. If “Hitlerday” had become a joyous celebration like christmas many hundred years in the future, and I could travel to said future, I would not discourage my decendents from celebrating it. History had taken a great tragedy and made something positive out of it; what is wrong with that? We have so few opportunities to celebrate, why take one away?

  • Marilin

    I’m keeping a copy of this in my wallet. I love history, and I like the history behind Christmas. Just because I don’t believe in god(s) doesn’t mean I shouldn’t be allowed to celebrate! Eggnog here I come!

  • Yikes. I browsed around this site for a few minutes and found an article rejecting any religion but orthodox Judaism and this gem which basically says that because science often reverses itself based on evidence, God exists. Somehow, I don’t think you really should be endorsing this site…

    If anyone’s wondering why they always write “G-d” instead of “God,” Jewish tradition holds that the name of God is holy and you can’t destroy anything with God’s name on it (it should instead be reverently buried). Therefore, anything that might be destroyed, like, say, a printout of a Website, should omit one letter or refer to God in an indirect way, like “hashem,” which is Hebrew for “the name.”

  • phil

    Each Roman community selected a victim whom they forced to indulge in food and other physical pleasures throughout the week. At the festival’s conclusion, December 25th, Roman authorities believed they were destroying the forces of darkness by brutally murdering this innocent man or woman.

    Every word of this is a lie, and you should be ashamed of yourself for passing it along uncritically.

    The closest they come to sourcing this statement is mentioning that Lucian describes the practices, which he does; gift gambling and drinking are permitted, slaves are served by their masters, and everyone eats a lot.

    The Romans didn’t practice human sacrifice, and it surprises me you don’t know that, or see an obvious blood libel.

  • Fett101

    So if someone graffiti’s the name god on a building they’re outta luck?

  • Michael

    This is anti Christian website that plays rather loosely with the facts to turn everything into an attack on Jews. The description of Saturnalia is complete BS as far as I can see.

  • Michael

    The Saturnalia was the most popular holiday of the Roman year. Catullus (XIV) describes it as “the best of days,” and Seneca complains that the “whole mob has let itself go in pleasures” (Epistles, XVIII.3). Pliny the Younger writes that he retired to his room while the rest of the household celebrated (Epistles, II.17.24). It was an occasion for celebration, visits to friends, and the presentation of gifts, particularly wax candles (cerei), perhaps to signify the returning light after the solstice, and sigillaria. Martial wrote Xenia and Apophoreta for the Saturnalia. Both were published in December and intended to accompany the “guest gifts” which were given at that time of year. Aulus Gellius relates in his Attic Nights (XVIII.2) that he and his Roman compatriots would gather at the baths in Athens, where they were studying, and pose difficult questions to one another on the ancient poets, a crown of laurel being dedicated to Saturn if no-one could answer them.

    During the holiday, restrictions were relaxed and the social order inverted. Gambling was allowed in public. Slaves were permitted to use dice and did not have to work. Instead of the toga, less formal dinner clothes (synthesis) were permitted, as was the pileus, a felt cap normally worn by the manumitted slave that symbolized the freedom of the season. Within the family, a Lord of Misrule was chosen. Slaves were treated as equals, allowed to wear their masters’ clothing, and be waited on at meal time in remembrance of an earlier golden age thought to have been ushered in by the god. In the Saturnalia, Lucian relates that “During My week the serious is barred; no business allowed. Drinking, noise and games and dice, appointing of kings and feasting of slaves, singing naked, clapping of frenzied hands, an occasional ducking of corked faces in icy water—such are the functions over which I preside.”

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  • II, E … “In return for ensuring massive observance of the anniversary of the Savior’s birth by assigning it to this resonant date, the Church for its part tacitly agreed to allow the holiday to be celebrated more or less the way it had always been.” The earliest Christmas holidays were celebrated by drinking, sexual indulgence, singing naked in the streets (a precursor of modern caroling), etc.

    Come on christians lets get back to the original roots and values of the season!

    On a different note, after reading the other stuff about raping and killing in this article, maybe I can now see why the church became obsessed with sex and limiting people’s sexual behavior. But now, in this 21st century, I think maybe we can all just agree that we should not rape and kill each other and don’t need a fictional god to tell us that we shouldn’t. (After all the bible doesn’t even expressly tell us not to rape, it’s our internal sense of morality and in absence of a sense of morality our legal system that forbids it.)

  • Kris

    That history is really senselessly biased against anything other than Orthadox Judaism. It would be nice to see a broader, more dispassionate history. Alas, this one is Godwined at the last.

  • ckitching

    I don’t doubt some of the things on that site are true, but I have a feeling some of it may be embellished (invoking Hitlermas at the end didn’t help). Furthermore, I could create a similar list for the holiday celebrating the birth of my country based on well documented history. However, I do not celebrate the origins of my country (which was bloody, bigoted, and often involved cruelty), but rather what my country is today. Likewise, I do not celebrate the origins of Christmas, but what it is today.

    Given the long sordid history of Christian antisemitism over the centuries, I think I’d be more surprised if Jewish people didn’t suffer oppression on this day.

  • Sesoron

    That description of Saturnalia strikes me as being highly suspicious. I checked Wikipedia on the matter, and it said nothing of the sort. Desiring to apply further rigor, I turned to my trusty Oxford Classical Dictionary, which provided much the same description that could be found in the Wiki and also no mention of a “Lord of Misrule” to be sacrificed at the end of the festival. While I’m sure this is intended to be slander against Christians, as a Classicist I read it more acutely as slander against the Romans; while they may have been a thoroughly unpleasant people at times, Saturnalia wasn’t really quite as nasty as all that.

  • Erp

    I have a feeling the story of the Roman chosen as a Lord of Misrule and then put to death is false (at least the second bit).

    It appears to have its origin in James Frazer’s “The Golden Bough”, Chapter 58.3 which in turn derives from the stories about the martyrdom of St. Dasius.

    According to these narratives, which have all the appearance of being authentic, and of which the longest is probably based on official documents, the Roman soldiers at Durostorum in Lower Moesia celebrated the Saturnalia year by year in the following manner. Thirty days before the festival they chose by lot from amongst themselves a young and handsome man, who was then clothed in royal attire to resemble Saturn. Thus arrayed and attended by a multitude of soldiers he went about in public with full license to indulge his passions and to taste of every pleasure, however base and shameful. But if his reign was merry, it was short and ended tragically; for when the thirty days were up and the festival of Saturn had come, he cut his own throat on the altar of the god whom he personated. In the year A.D. 303 the lot fell upon the Christian soldier Dasius, but he refused to play the part of the heathen god and soil his last days by debauchery. …

    Note one place only in a remote section of the Roman Empire though Frazer extrapolates. Also accuracy is debated (that Dasius might have refused to participate in a pagan ritual and executed for that is quite possible, that he would have been killed anyway at the end seems to me less likely).

  • Lou

    Sesoron is right. The holiday was nothing of the sort. Check out the true explanation in Adkins & Adkins’ Handbook to Life in Ancient Rome.

  • At the festival’s conclusion, December 25th, Roman authorities believed they were destroying the forces of darkness by brutally murdering this innocent man or woman.

    This seems rather questionable. The best support I can find for this (via wikipedia) is in James Frazer’s The Golden Bough, where he describes this sort of ritual sacrifice of the Lord of Misrule as being carried out among Roman soldiers stationed at Durostorum during the third – fourth centuries CE (based on documents whose historical accuracy apparently were perhaps somewhat doubtful at the time he was writing) – which he viewed (being Frazer) as marginal survivals of a much more ancient rite, etc., etc. . In Rome itself – can’t find anything suggesting that (that doesn’t sound crazed).

  • Matt

    I heard that it stems from an early Christian belief that Mary became pregnant in March because it would have meant Jesus came into the world the same time he came out of it (as he died during Passover). Nine months after March Passover would be the Winter Solstice. Early Christians apparently thought it would have been poetic? I don’t know. The fact that it occurs during the same period as the Solstice is an interesting coincidence that no doubt helped in passively taking over the pagan community before they all-out destroyed the remainder of them with physical violence.

    Also, I think you’re using a really biased source. I’d look into a more secular scholarly explanation.

  • MH

    If you want some more eye opening reading check out simpletoremember’s intermarriage articles or videos.

    Also while Saturnalia was likely the holiday replaced by Christmas, the article sounds like a biased distortion.

  • Tim Carroll

    You know, I’ve read a few statements over the years about Roman customs, but seldom have I ever seen ROMAN sources cited for them. It’s always been later, christian sources. I personally question almost all statements about the nature of roman festivals.
    Even if roman sources are cited, I would wonder if 1st century romans celebrated in the same way that 3rd century romans did.
    Because we all know that Christmas is celebrated the same way, everywhere, that it was celebrated 300 years ago, right?

  • Kim

    The History Channel makes a mention of the “lord of misrule” on their Saturnalia page, for what it’s worth.

  • Stellar Duck

    I’m by no means extremely well versed in Roman culture, but I do fancy I’ve read quite a bit about it, seeing as I’m a historian and classicist. That description of the Saturnalia seems highly suspicious.
    The Romans were perhaps not the most pleasant people at all times but I’ve never had the impression that they did stuff like that. At least not in any main stream way.
    If memory servers the “high point” of the celebration was the night when roles of master and slave were reversed and the slaves got to boss their masters around without consequences. For a given value of ‘no consequences’ of course.

  • Dana

    You know, Christians used to accuse Jews of making their matzoh balls out of human babies or some such atrocity. People have been accusing Jewish people of all kinds of nasty stuff for centuries now. And every majority group issues ridiculous accusations about minorities, it’s not just everybody vs. the Jews. So where these guys get off saying this kind of thing about Romans, I really don’t know.

    The way I heard it was that under the Julian calendar, winter solstice occurred on December 25th. Then the calendar was switched over to Gregorian, well after Christmas was set up to supplant the pagan holiday. But the date of Christmas was not changed accordingly. I think this the more likely explanation because St. John’s (the Baptist) Day is on June 25.

    Whatever the case, you are correct that most of the trappings of Christmas have pagan origins and that Jesus probably wasn’t even born in December. If he existed in the first place, and I have my doubts.

  • Kind of important to note that the entire description of Saturnalia quoted above is unsourced, as is the vast majority of the article. Sounds like a crock to me, from what I’ve heard of it.

  • Martin

    Wow, this clears some things up about another Christmas “tradition” Some Christians are stealing yet another pagan tradition, that being breaking the law, though they just do it with breaking separation of church and state with placing nativity scenes on public property but not allowing others their displays…

  • Heidi

    @Kim: thanks for the History Channel link. I like that description of Saturnalia as being similar to Mardi Gras. I vote we bring that back and ditch the Christian bits of the holiday.

  • (maybe it’s time for a correction or qualification in the original post, in the interest of accuracy & fairness?)

    You know, Christians used to accuse Jews of making their matzoh balls out of human babies or some such atrocity

    And early Christians had themselves been accused by Romans of human sacrifice and baby-killing (in a rather literal interpretation of the eucharist). So what goes around comes around, I guess, but still – (And you’d think a Jewish site above all others would be careful about unsubstantiated accusations of this sort, even if the culture in question is long gone, but, well, people . . .)

  • NP

    Seeing how bad they butchered Saturnalia I do not even want to click on the link and see what other bs they made up about pagan holidays.

  • Todd

    I’m disappointed. No citation of Kersey Graves? What pseudo historical account of the pagan origins of Christianity is complete without mention of Graves dubious work? We see this sort of nonsense leading up to Halloween from fundamentalist Christians. I suppose Jews want to join in on the fun of grave robbing.

    The dead cannot defend themselves.

  • Hannah

    December 25th is a date to celebrate an unknown specific date of the birth of Jesus. There are people that don’t know when they were born, so you choose a day to celebrate it on. The end.

  • John

    The hoiday we now call Christmas has nothing to do with my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. It began at the Tower of Babel. God had told the people to disperse and to repopulate the earth. In defiance of God, the people formed a one world religion and community against God. This was done under the leadership of a witch and her son, Nimrod, whom she had married. Nimrod and his mother both demanded worship.

    After Nimrod died, his mother, claiming to be a virgin, became pregnant. She said that her new son, Tammuz, was a reincarnation of nimrod and that he should be worshipped. She said that Tammuz/Nimrod died on December 21, started coming back alive on the 24, and was born on the 25. She declared, over 4,ooo years ago, December 25 to be the birthday of her son Tammuz and for that day to be celebrated

    Around 300 A.D., after a pagan Roman emporer,Canstantine, had declared his pagan empire to be Christian and started the Roman Catholic Institution, the Roman Catholics held a mass(which is a pagan practice that looks similar to The Lord’s Supper) for the christ of Catholicism on the 24th of December. From then on the Roman Catholics declared December 25 to be Christ-Mass and said it was the birth of Jesus. They replaced the witch,”false virgin” and her son Tammuz with Mary, who truly was a virgin, and the real Jesus.

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