Christmas or the Saturnalia?



By Milburn Cockrell

There is no command to celebrate the birth of Christ in the Bible. There is not one word in the Bible about Jesus Christ being born on December 25. According to Holy Scriptures, the most likely date would be in September, as many scholars concede. No verse in the Bible commands us to exchange gifts among ourselves on December 25. The wise men did not exchange gifts among themselves, but they gave gifts to Christ (Matt. 2:11).

I heard some person ask, “Then why do we celebrate Christmas on December 25? Where did this custom come from?”

I will let history give the answer. The Christmas celebration came from a pagan festival of ancient Rome called the Saturnalia.

My first quote is from History of the World by John Clark Ridpath. This is the man who wrote W. A. Jarrell a letter in which he said: “I should not readily admit there was a Baptist church as far back as A. D. 100, though without doubt there were Baptists then, as all Christians were then Baptists” (See Baptist Church Perpetuity, p. 59).

“The great festival of FLORA was celebrated by the women. It was given when the wheat fields were in bloom, and was conducted with much beautiful display peculiar to the season of flowers. But the most elaborate of all the celebrations of Rome was that of SATURN, held at the winter solstice, and afterwards extended so as to include the twenty-fifth of December.

“Saturn was regarded by the Romans as the god of that primitive peace which once held sway in the world before the age of devastation and war. In that pacific era all men held the same rank and had their enjoyments in common. It was fitting, therefore, that in the festival of Saturn—though the world had forgotten the old-time goodness—all men should be regarded as restored for a brief season to their primitive equality. So the great and the humble, the rich and the poor, the young and the old, were all given the license of a common freedom, a common immunity. The festival was called the Saturnalia. Labor ceased, public business was at an end, the courts were closed, the schools had holiday. Tables, laden with bounties, were spread on every hand, and at these all classes for the nonce sat down together. The master and the slave for the day were equals. It was a time of gift-giving and innocent abandonment. In the public shops every variety of present from the simplest to the most costly could be found. Fathers, mothers, kinspeople, friends, all hurried thither to purchase, according to their fancy, what things soever seemed most tasteful and appropriate as presents. The fair of Rome exhibited in plentiful profusion every variety of articles brought from every quarter of the world. There were knickknacks for the children, ornaments for the ladies, little trophies of the toilet, ornamental tapers in wax, and, indeed, whatever the fancy or caprice of Rome could well imagine or create. It was a season of mirth and jollity; of feasting and hilarity; of games and sports.” (Vol. II, pp. 743-744).

Next I call attention to the World Book Encyclopedia which is found in many Christian homes in America:

“SATURNALIA, sat er NA lih ah, was the name of an ancient Roman festival. The feast was given in honor of Saturn, the Roman harvest god. The festival began on December 17 and lasted for seven days. On the first day, public religious ceremonies took place, and sacrifices were offered to Saturn. On the second day, many families offered their own sacrifices of a young pig.

“The Saturnalia festival was a gay occasion. Schools observed holidays and all public business was halted. Courts of law closed their doors, and no criminals could be punished. Families held gatherings and elaborate banquets. Even Roman slaves were free to attend the festival.

“The last days of the festival were given over to visiting and exchanging presents. Some of the gifts were little clay images. They were called sigillaria, from the Latin word sigilla, which means small images. The last days of the festival were also called the sigillaria” (Vol. 15, p. 7234, 1956 edition).

Some contend that the Saturnalia ended on December 24th, but Ridpath says it included December 25. Please don’t forget December 24 is Christmas Eve.

The Encyclopedia Britannica has a good article in it among which you will find the following information: “The streets were infected with a Mardi Gras madness. . .the seasonal greeting io Saturnalia was heard everywhere; presents were freely exchanged. . . .The influence of the Saturnalia upon the celebrations of Christmas and the New Year has been direct. . .” (Vol. 19, pp. 1084, 1971 edition).

Some sincere Christians will say, “But we have Christianized this day for Christ. It is no longer a pagan celebration to the Roman god Saturn.” How can you Christianize a pagan day? Can you reform the Devil? Can we use heathen customs in the worship of Jehovah? What does the Bible say about this practice? The answer is found in Deuteronomy 12:29-31: “When the LORD thy God shall cut off the nations from before thee, whither thou goest to possess them, and thou succeedest them, and dwellest in their land; Take heed to thy self that thou be not snared by following them, after that they be destroyed from before thee; and that thou inquire not after their gods, saying, How did these nations serve their gods? even so will I do likewise. Thou shalt not do so unto the LORD thy God. . .”

© Berea Baptist Church, Mantachie, Mississippi, U.S.A.