Discover more from Classical Wisdom
Greeks vs Romans:
Who Influenced Christmas More?
Dear Classical Wisdom Reader,
It’s always a popular game to play: The Greeks vs the Romans? Two huge powers of the ancient world, immense in their influence and history.
Indeed, what conversation would not be better without bringing up the question!?
So while you are no doubt planning your arguments for your Christmas dinner (I certainly am), I’ll make it more specific, perfect for the season….
Who influenced Christmas More? The Greeks or Romans?
Read on below and decide for yourself!
All the best,
Founder and Director
P.S. There is still time for a cerebral last minute gift this holiday season! For those who ‘have everything’ or for those who know that “Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants,” grab a gift subscription! A great way to bring the ancient world to those around you (and selfishly ensuring interesting future conversations). Check it our options here:
Greeks vs Romans: Who Influenced Christmas More?
Written by Anya Leonard
While Christmas is generally considered a Christian celebration, many of you no doubt know that quite a few of its traditions go much further back… back to the ancient world.
While it’s always difficult to be certain when traversing the millennia in order to find the true roots of… anything, there are some clear ancient tendencies alive and well in our modern holiday expressions.
The question, however, is which ancient party casts the larger shadow? That of the Greeks or that of the Romans?
So let’s take a quick tour of some of the more popular associations of Christmas today, and see where we can spot the source!
Perhaps one of the most similar events to Christmas in the ancient world was the celebration of the birth of Dionysus. The ancient Greeks commemorated this twice born god, calling him “Savior” and “divine infant,” on the 30th of December.
While there were many activities to mark the day, it was also traditional for children to sing carols, which were associated with prosperity, joy, and peace. They would travel to the homes of the wealthy to sing, holding an olive or a laurel branch adorned with wool (a symbol of health and beauty).
One of the greatest writers of antiquity, Homer, also composed carols for the occasion while on the island of Samos, illustrating the importance of the event in ancient Greek tradition.
Santa Claus’ Sleigh
Another important part of Christmas — Santa Claus’ sleigh — is borrowed from ancient Greek tradition, potentially once more from the celebrations of Dionysus’ birth. Some say that on the 30th of December, Dionysus’ chariot turned into a sleigh while its horses would turn into flying horses.
Though it could have also been the worship of Illuminator Apollo-Sun, who sat on his flying chariot and shared the Light.
Either way, in modern Christmas traditions, Santa travels the world on a sleigh that is pulled by flying reindeers, which clearly shows a Northern pagan influence as well.
‘O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree…’
The history of the Christmas tree is regularly reported to date back to medieval Germany. At the time, Germany was still largely pagan and St. Boniface was a missionary there. Pagan religions had a vast reverence for trees, and there was a large tree in central Germany which was so highly revered it was thought the world would end if it was cut down.
St. Boniface cut down the tree to discredit the pagan belief and help spread Christianity in the region. From that time on, trees were associated with Christianity in Germany, leading to the Christmas tree tradition we see today.
However, it should be noted that once again, there is potentially an earlier tradition dating back to Dionysus’ birth: On the 30th of December, ancient Greeks decorated his temples with trees. The trees were given as a sacred offering to the divine child and his rebirth was celebrated every year… so St. Boniface might have been behind the times.
The Christmas season/Date
Christianity owes its rapid spread largely thanks to the Roman Empire. The ancient superpower made it a state religion and helped it grow exponentially. For this reason, celebrations such as Christmas incorporated many ancient Roman traditions, especially Saturnalia.
Extremely popular and beloved, it was described as “the best of days ” by Catullus, while Seneca complained that the “whole mob has let itself go in pleasures” (Epistles, XVIII.3).
It was a time when people rejoiced, visited friends, gave gag gifts, lit candles and sang in the streets – naked. It was so celebrated in fact, that it shouldn’t be a surprise that when Rome went Christian, they couldn’t just end the favorite festival of the year… they had to somehow convert it into Christmas, though perhaps with little success.
Indeed, it is possible that the 25th of December was chosen to mark Jesus’ birth solely to correspond with this popular ancient pagan festival.
Gift-giving, Eating and Decorations
Originally celebrated on December 17th, Saturnalia was so popular that it was eventually extended over the week. Auspiciously meant to worship the God Saturn (or Greek Kronus), it started with a sacrifice at the Temple of Saturn, in the Roman Forum, followed by a public banquet and ended with an all out carnival.
People decorated their homes with wreaths and other greenery, and shed their traditional togas in favor of colorful clothes known as synthesis. Think of it as an ancient version of ugly sweaters…
There were many opportunities to give gifts, though some were less serious than others. In addition to common gag gifts, wax taper candles called cerei were common to signify light returning after the solstice.
On the last day of Saturnalia celebrations, known as the Sigillaria, many Romans gave their friends and loved ones small terracotta figurines known as signillaria, potentially a reference to human sacrifice.
Another Santa Claus/Caroling Influence?
One particular tradition from Saturnalia that hasn’t continued in the United States, but was more prevalent in the United Kingdom until the Puritan rise in the 17th century, was the ‘Lord of Misrule’. An appointed Saturnalicius princeps, who, with the point of his finger could command celebrants to sing naked or jump into cold water. While this would certainly be popular with frat boys today, it could also be considered another source for modern day caroling.
Interestingly, the future emperor Nero is recorded as playing the role in his youth and while we can not say for certain how this character affected his rule, we can take a few amusing ganders.
A Few More Notes about Saturnalia:
There are a few elements of Saturnalia that didn’t get incorporated into our modern festivities….some of which we should be very happy about. Essentially, over time it grew into an event that seems to have captured some of the best and worst of human qualities.
On the one hand, slaves were treated as equals (just for that one week, of course), and were allowed to wear their master’s clothes and a pileus, a felt cap normally worn by a freeman. Additionally, their owners waited on them (though the slaves still prepared the meal) and these temporarily unowned men were permitted to gamble and relax in public unmolested.
Moreover, It was a time for free speech, where the lower levels of society could insult the uppers without punishment. Indeed, the Augustan poet Horace called it “December liberty.”
On the other hand, murder seemed to crop up all too regularly.
The Catiline conspirators intended to fire the city and kill the Senate on the Saturnalia, when everyone was busy partying (Cicero, The Third Oration Against Catiline, X). Caracalla plotted to murder his brother during the celebrations (Dio, LXXVIII.2.1)… And to top it all off, there were those ‘human sacrifices’ to the god Saturn, which were mostly dead, unsuccessful gladiators, according to third century sources.
Over the centuries many of the particulars of Saturnalia adapted, improved or were left behind, but in one way or another it was still celebrated throughout the entire Roman empire. Its popularity remained unwavered straight through the 3rd and 4th century, right up to Rome’s adoption of Christianity.
Saturnalia did not completely vanish at that point… instead it was pulled into the religious bosom, where it would influence the new customs and cultures that began with early Christianity, as we have pointed out above.
So, in the end, can we conclude whether the Greeks or the Romans influenced Christmas more?
It’s difficult, as always, to say… but seeing as today is the last day of the Roman holiday, we Classical Wisdom enthusiasts will cheerfully conclude with a Io Saturnalia!
Classical Wisdom is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support the Classics, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.