We Wish You a Merry Saturnalia: Northern Churchman

We Wish You a Merry Saturnalia?

The Northern Churchman

There is a familiar feel to this time of year. The Christmas advertising on television, the darker evenings, the Carol Services – and the inevitable scoffers who call the Christmas story a myth. Not ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ but, according to them, ‘Once upon a time in Royal David’s City’.

One old favourite of these detractors is to take issue with the Christmas festival itself: “You Christians just took over the bawdy Saturnalia feasting from the Romans.” Or “It is just a reworking of the midwinter festival of Sol Invictus – the pagan celebration of the sun god Sol who ‘dies’ as the sun reaches its lowest point in the sky, and who rises again as the days begin to get longer.”

Their conclusion? Christmas (and presumably the Christian faith itself) is just a retelling of pagan myths with little history behind it. Those who make such accusations seem to think they have come up with an unanswerable objection to Christianity.

How is a Christian to answer this? How did we come to celebrate the birth of Jesus in late December?

The information in Luke’s Gospel, with shepherds in fields at night, would indicate a warmer month than December for the date of the Nativity. For the first couple of centuries of the Church’s life, Christians weren’t especially interested in dates of birth, but dates of death.

For the early Church the Lord’s Day was the Day of Resurrection, and the festival of Easter moved in sync with the Passover. Early Christians tended to commemorate the day of the death of a martyr or church figure, as that was the day of their true birth into the heavenly kingdom. Thus the birth of Jesus, or indeed anyone else, didn’t feature highly as a celebration.

Christians of the time considered that the calendar should be a tidy affair, drawing from the orderly account of creation in Genesis 1. They held that a righteous person died on their birthday. In the case of Jesus, this day of birth and day of death was calculated initially as 25th March. 

However, by the end of the third century, there were those in the Church who refused to believe in the divinity of Jesus. They taught that God adopted Jesus as his Son at his baptism, and so he could not be the eternal Son of the Father. To safeguard the divine nature of Jesus even in the womb of Mary, the Council of Nicaea decreed that 25th March should be reckoned at the date of the miraculous conception. Hence the date to celebrate his birthday moved by nine months to 25th December.

What can we say in answer to the detractors? First of all, we can challenge them on the facts:

  • Is there really an exact correspondence between the Saturnalia and Christmas? The Roman festival concluded on 23rd December, and that’s not even Christmas Eve! 
  • It’s a very neat theory that the Christians took over Sol Invictus festival on 25th December – except Sol Invictus is first recorded as a celebration in AD 386, and the date of Christmas was determined by the Council of Nicaea in 325.

It seems the facts do not back up the claims of the scoffers; their theories are lazy comparisons. 

Thoughtful Christians know that we are not saying that 25th December is Jesus’ actual birthday, but that we may as well celebrate his birth at a commonly-agreed time of the year. The date chosen was designed to express a key truth about Jesus’ identity as the God of God and Light of Light, the Word made flesh dwelling among us. Even the calendar was calculated and tweaked to express theological truth. If we know how to answer the scoffer and sceptic on the reason for 25th December, we might then ask them that key question: Who is Jesus?

As a footnote, we might recall that one of the bishops attending the Council of Nicaea that set the date of Christmas was a certain Nicholas of Myra. Ho ho ho!