Saturn, Solstice, and Christmas
Updated: Jun 18, 2022
December means special foods, decorating, libations, and gift giving. Families and neighbors gather to celebrate time together. December holidays are a melting pot of pagan, secular, and religious customs. For some, Christmas is the highlight and falls in the same month as a number of important Roman pagan holidays. Is there a connection between the Roman pagan holidays and December 25? How did the date of Christmas come about and how has the holiday been expressed in art?
Italian artists have depicted Christmas art for centuries. The art depicting his birth provides us with what seems to be a continuous narrative, yet Jesus’ nativity is barely mentioned in the Bible. That leaves a lot of details filled in by early Christian theologians, not by anyone who was there. The relationship between pagan holidays and Christmas, as well as the artistic interpretation of the nativity, brings us closer to understanding the history and origins of Christmas.
Saturnalia was a rowdy Roman festival occurring around mid-December and lasted for days. Drunken partying and gift giving were an integral part. Then the solstice was celebrated as longer days returned to earth. To cap off the month, the celebration of Sol Invictus (unconquered sun) fell on December 25. Of these three, Saturnalia was the most celebrated.
The god Saturn is a bit obscure, associated with agriculture, prosperity, and considered a god that prevailed over the good old days prior to the Roman empire, and specifically before there were slaves. Saturn’s partner was his sister Ops and they had six children including Jupiter, Pluto, and Neptune. Usually depicted veiled and holding a sickle, his Roman temple was first dedicated about 500 BCE. The remnants of the Temple of Saturn visible today in the Forum consist of eight travertine columns, rebuilt after a fire in 360-80 CE. Although the ways in which Saturnalia was observed changed over the nearly eight hundred years it was celebrated, it traditionally began on December 17 in the Roman Julian calendar (December 13 in our Gregorian calendar). The trademarks of the festival were gambling, feasting, and role reversal. Slaves could role play as owners, although there were social limits on how much role reversal actually occurred.
The feast days started with unveiling the statue of Saturn’s feet, which were kept wrapped in cloth. After animal sacrifices at the temple a huge public feast was offered for all of Rome. It was a loud and boisterous affair that went on and on for days. Sometimes it lasted four days, and sometimes seven. This opportunity to temporarily erase social norms was the reason for the season. Comedy was a central part, with written records that are replete with verbal sarcasms and jokes. Behavior was crude and over the top.
Everything shut down during this time. No courts, government, or businesses. It became a theatre of the absurd, with Romans wearing colorful clothes instead of their togas, hurling insults at each other, and visiting neighbors. Households elected a “king” who would order others around. Gifts were exchanged. Some were of little value, and some of greater value. Many kept records of what was given to them and by whom. It was important not to slight anyone with a gift of lesser quality. Terracotta figurines and wax figures were popular. Historians including Catullus, Pliny, Plutarch, and Macrobius recorded stories about Saturnalia from the first century BCE to about the fifth century CE. The role reversal and ability to step out of everyday roles and play pretend was a manageable outlet aimed at social control, especially for the thousands of slaves. When Saturnalia ended, everyone returned to their social places.
Yet another god was celebrated following Saturnalia. Sol Invictus was observed December 25 to commemorate solstice (December 21 in our calendar). The cult of the sun god was elevated in 274 CE to supreme deity. Some think this increased importance of Sol Invictus is tied to the rise in Christianity. Early Christian art sometimes referred to and depicted Jesus with a sun, sometimes thought also to represent Jesus as Apollo.
How Christmas Came to Be
A Google search about the origins of Christmas will quickly populate with results that neatly tie the celebration of the birth of Jesus to these Roman festivals, as if there was seamless transition from pagan to Christian. A deeper dive into the research shows it’s a bit more complicated.
Two theories have evolved. One, called the calculation theory, explains December 25 could possibly be the birth of Jesus. Another is that Christianity co-opted solstice and Saturnalia and converting them into their holiday. Either way, solstices and equinoxes play an important role in determining the dates. Both theories require a leap of faith.
Religious scholars and chronographers have been trying to fix the birth of Jesus since the third century. Lunar and solar cycles have been important to virtually all religions and belief systems, Judeo-Christian included, specifically the equinoxes in September and March, and the solstices in December and June.
The calculation theory is based on aligning his conception, birth, and death with seasonal cycles. We know Jesus died at the time of Jewish Passover and his death date was determined to be March 25 which was established in the late second century. A Jewish belief existed that great men, i.e. prophets, could be born or die on the same day and live a complete number of years. That theory would put Jesus’ conception, on March 25. His birth, nine months after March 25, would be December 25. The conception and death would be on the spring equinox and the birth on the solstice. This way of thinking does not rely solely on the Roman pagan holidays as rationale for Christmas, but rather a more mystical approach.
The other theory, called history of religions theory, explains that Christmas and the pagan December holidays morphed into one as the Roman Empire faded. This has some merit in terms of cultural practice and coincidence of holidays. Christianity was officially sanctioned by the Roman Emperor Constantine in 313, so the pagan and Christian religions were both practiced at the same time for over two hundred years, although Christians were persecuted at times and the new religion was forced underground. Christians borrowed many visual motifs used in Roman art (shepherd, fish, dove, lamb) to convey the new ideas in a way that would be more easily understood by Gentiles. The theory that Sol Invictus became Christmas doesn’t hold water as the sun god was celebrated at other times of the year, not just at solstices or equinoxes. Sol Invictus wasn’t a holiday well known throughout the empire.
Contemporary historical sources do not confirm or deny the theories as both are speculative. Multi-disciplinary scholars and Google favor the adaptation of the pagan holidays into Christmas while liturgical scholars lean toward the calculation theory. Church scholars speculate that December 25 was chosen as a date not so much because it fell so close to existing celebration but to deliberately replace the pagan holidays, making Christmas the most important holiday.
The Reformation caused additional upheaval with the date in order to tamp down the revelry associated with December 25 and any association with paganism. Some Calvinists proposed an autumn birthday. Why would shepherds be out in December with their flock? Although Puritans sought to subdue the gluttony associated with Christmas their efforts eventually failed. The cultural Saturnalia festivities of eating and gifting undoubtedly continued with Christmas.
Whether the December 25 holiday was mystically ordained, or a solar lunar coincidence, or pagan influenced, there is no lack of art created to commemorate the events surrounding his birth. Religious art mirrors theology. Art reflects what patrons and people believed and what subjects were valued as well as a teaching and devotional mechanism for the faithful. Three subjects dominate Christmas art: the Immaculate Conception, the Nativity, and the Adoration of the Magi.
December 8 is a public holiday in Italy honoring the Immaculate Conception and is the first December holiday in the Christmas season. Most people think this honors the conception of Jesus, which is a different religious occasion called the Annunciation. The angel appears to Mary and startles her with the information that she, as a virgin, will conceive a divine child via the Holy Spirit. The Annunciation is celebrated March 25, bolstering the idea that Jesus was born nine months later.
The Immaculate Conception refers to Mary’s freedom from original sin since her conception. Even more so than December 25, Mary’s sinless nature was debated from the fourth century onward and only became formalized doctrine in 1854. There is no biblical source for this, and decried by protestants as baseless. Early theologians struggled with the idea that Jesus was born a human, but was also divine. Equally difficult to sort out was the status of his mother, who was fully human yet gave birth to the son of God. As the mother of Jesus, theologians decided Mary should be depicted as a saint, with special status that is other worldly.
The depiction of the Immaculate Conception does not vary widely. She is usually shown levitating in clouds with a prayerful stance, either arms held outward, or clasped together. Guido Reni, very famous in the seventeenth century, painted this large oil canvas for a Spanish patron. A typical Reni attribute is the upturned face and eyes in his religious paintings. Two winged angels appear in adoration with a large quantity of putti (cherubs) under and emerging from the orange-yellow cloud. She stands on a moon, symbol of Mary, as a halo of stars floats above her.
The nativity became a common subject, the baby in the manger surrounded by Mary, Joseph, angels, and shepherds. In the twenty-seven books of the New Testament only Matthew and Luke wrote of the Nativity in their gospels at the turn of the first century. It’s important to keep in mind that they wrote for different audiences and with the primary goal to establish that Jesus was the son of God from birth. Matthew wrote in modern day Syria and Luke was well travelled and wrote from Asia Minor to Rome. They were not writing biographies of Jesus. Relying on oral histories, these gospels are theological stories, not historical documents. Neither writer knew Jesus directly and they did not know each other.
The last of the twenty-seven books of the New Testament was written in 125. It wasn’t until 367 that everyone agreed what texts would encompass the New Testament– and quite a few didn’t make the cut. It is interesting that out of roughly 184,600 words in the NT only Matthew and Luke mention the Nativity. It wasn’t that much of a concern to early Christians, but settling on a date and knowing when Jesus was born became more important as time went on. The writers agree that he was born in Bethlehem, there was a virginal conception, the father who raised Jesus was Joseph, and there was a special sign in the sky to mark the event.
Luke’s story is the one that artists found inspirational. Joseph and Mary were compiling with a census decree and had to travel to Bethlehem. Mary went into labor, gave birth and wrapped Jesus in cloths and laid him in a manger as there was no room at the inn. Angels announced the good news to shepherds, who came to adore him. It’s really only a couple of paragraphs.
Matthew doesn’t elaborate much on the birth, but adds a section on the wise men who saw a star and brought gifts to Jesus. About half of Matthew’s account is about the Magi and their interaction with Herod and following the star to find the child. It is intriguing that the big holiday we celebrate would not have existed if these paragraphs had not been written and included in the Bible.
The infancy narrative scenes first appear in about 320 CE on Roman sarcophagi and feature the Magi approaching Jesus and Mary. It was the Magi that first captured the artistic expression of early Christians. In the Middle Ages the composition changes to include Mary on a large cushion-type couch holding the newborn, often with Joseph. More variations appeared as the scenes and figures became more complex in the Renaissance. One type features Mary alone kneeling with hands clasped in prayer while the baby lies on the ground. Halos are usually in place to signify their divine or saintly status. Sometimes a larger scene is depicted with animals from the stable, Joseph, and sometimes shepherds and angels. All Middle Ages and early Renaissance painted scenes are outside or just inside a roughly hewn stable. By the eighteenth century the stable is sometimes replaced by Roman ruins and the Magi are depicted as people of color with ethnic or idealized exotic clothing.
Who were the Magi and where did they come from? We don’t know how many they were but Matthew wrote they came from the east, that they were Gentiles, they bore gifts, and a great star lead them to Jesus. By the third century tradition and legend filled in the narrative, with now three Magi and sometimes they were called kings. The three were named Balthasar, Melchior, and Gaspar by the sixth century. Most likely they were pagan astrologers and scientists, truly wise men, who knew the skies, and interpreted portents, stellular and planetary signs, and omens. The name Magi comes from Magus, priests that prepared horoscopes and deciphered dreams. Their homelands may have been present day Iraq, Iran, or Arabia. And the star? Historical astrology points to the possibility that a number of astral signs took place from 7 BCE to 5 BCE including a nova, massing of Jupiter and Saturn, moon passing close to Jupiter, and planetary conjunctions. The Magi would have found these signs compelling enough to travel for about two months to Bethlehem.
Giotto di Bondone (c. 1277-1337) revolutionized Italian Renaissance art by representing figures with mass, expression of emotion, and simplicity of composition. His masterpiece is the thirty-eight scenes frescoed in Padua’s Scrovegni Chapel depicting the life of Mary and the life of Christ. One of these scenes is the Adoration of the Magi. Giotto painted a separate scene of the nativity with Mary lying on a raised platform as a midwife passes the swaddled baby to her. Angels announce the miraculous event to shepherds and their sheep. It was frequent to have separate scenes of the Nativity and the Magi as they occurred at different times in the life of baby Jesus.
Giotto’s scene takes place outdoors at night in a rocky landscape under a wooden structure. The wise men appear with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, while a young boy holds the harness of a camel. There are no shepherds but an angel stands beside Mary. Joseph, as usual, appears resting. The scene of the Magi has a brilliant flash of light zooming above the wooden structure. In September 1301 Halley’s Comet was observed in Europe. Giotto most likely saw the comet and did a faithful depiction of the brilliant light and its trailing tail. For quite some time people thought a comet must have been the sign the Magi’s saw.
Lorenzo Monaco’s (c. 1375-1423) Nativity from the early fifteenth century has a decorative style, yet is simple and straightforward. The symmetrical scene is easy to understand. Jesus is center, flanked by his mother and Joseph. Jesus’ nakedness demonstrates his humanness as well as the divine light emanating from him. The ox and ass look on at the child while in the upper right the shepherds are stuck by the bright star that will lead them to the child. This is the typical scene that has been reproduced on Christmas cards.
He paints the Nativity also at night, according to the gospels. Nocturnal scenes are rarely depicted in painting. Some of the details depicted in the infancy narratives art are not in Luke or Matthew, but have their origin in the texts that did not make the cut into the final books of the New Testament, but must have been well-known. Lorenzo “the monk” was a popular artist in Florence whose paintings are graceful and colorful with lithe figures that aren’t particularly sturdy, yet are elegant. His interpretation of the nativity ushered in a new representation of Mary kneeling to worship the child with golden rays of light. This representation is based on Saint Bridget of Sweden’s vision in which she saw the child mystically delivered in a burst of light while Mary fervently prayed. The baby remained radiant after birth, and so the tradition began to depict Jesus naked.
Sandro Botticelli’s (1445-1510) Mystic Nativity is a flurry of activity. The calmness of Giotto is replaced by swirling figures, a sense of unease and hurriedness. The Florentine political climate and Botticelli’s alliance with the religious zealot Savonarola are partially responsible for this unusual rendition. This represents a sharp departure from Botticelli’s other works, notably The Birth of Venus fifteen years earlier, or his portraits. Botticelli painted the Adoration of the Magi seven or more times, but in this version, he combines the Nativity, Magi, and Shepherds, not altogether unusual at this point in art history. However, there are devils below, angels above, as the heavens open up, three angel couples who kiss and hug mortals on the ground level, an inscription, and angels that lead mortals to the child. I know of no other artistic infancy narrative that contains these elements. The painting is as unconventional as a nativity scene can get.
Most likely Botticelli painted this for himself or as a gift to a admirer of the fanatic, as the Florentine political and religious uncertainties would make the content unpopular, if not sacrilegious. His symbolism is difficult to sort out, but is based on Savonarola’s teachings and Revelations. Savonarola spoke to packed crowds in the Duomo of Florence and preached some unusual ideas – that Christ entered Florence in 1496 on Palm Sunday, that the Antichrist would be born in some thirty years, plus Apocalyptic premonitions that eventually got him condemned to death three years prior to Botticelli’s painting. Savonarola felt Italy had become grossly materialistic and immoral and called for, and got, a bonfire of the vanities with citizens burning their goods, including art. Botticelli did not want to follow in the same path of condemnation although he was an supporter of Savonarola.
The inscription on the top Botticelli painted in Greek declares that the birth of Christ will take place in the future; nothing anyone in 1500 would want to admit to publicly. He also refers to the “troubles of Italy” which signifies the invasion of the French, something Savonarola felt was a just reward for moral failures. Whatever Botticelli intended, he did it discreetly and without making himself clear. This painting perhaps was made to memorialize his spiritual guide. Botticelli’s regard for Savonarola was well-known. Biographer Giorgio Vasari believed he lacked patrons after Savonarola’s hanging and burning, that he aged rapidly, and could walk only with canes. It appears Botticelli became an outsider the last ten years of his life.
Although there is hardly room in the calendar for another December holiday, there in an irreverent American holiday to add in the mix. Festivus made its US debut on the Seinfeld TV show in 1997. Perhaps Saturnalia lives on in this very secular celebration of games and festivities that parody tradition. Gather round the Festivus aluminum pole, air your grievances, display your feats of strength, and dine together!
Whatever your tradition, Buone Feste! Happy Holidays!
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Kelly, Joseph F. The Origins of Christmas. Liturgical Press, 2014.
Kidger, Mark. The Star of Bethlehem: An Astronomer’s View. Princeton University Press, 1999.
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Saturnalia YouTube video by religious scholar Dr. Andrew Mark Henry.