Christmas just happens to coincide, roughly, with the winter solstice, the shortest day and longest night of the year. A number of cultures have held celebrations on that day. In Scandinavia, the day was the occasion of the Feast of Yule, which lasted 12 days. In China, the time of the year was marked by the Donzhi Festival. Most famously, the ancient Romans celebrated Saturnalia. All of the holidays featured merriment and feasting, commemorating when the days started to grow longer, and summer began to draw nigh.

Io Saturnalia!

Saturnalia featured feasting, merriment, gift giving, and a curious inversion of social norms.

During the days of Saturnalia, masters served slaves, dressing them in finery, and allowing them to have a hint of freedom. Roman society depended on the labor of slaves; people referred to as “tools that speak,” that did the work that in modern civilization is done by machines. As anyone who saw the film “Spartacus” this system had an inherent instability since those speaking tools were human beings and often resented being forced to work for others. Saturnalia served as a safety valve, to show the slaves that life was not all unrelenting drudgery.

Just like Christmas, Saturnalia started as a religious holiday, honoring the god Saturn, thought to oversee sowing and planting. By the later days of the Roman Empire, the holiday was seen as just an occasion for revelry with its religious origins all but forgotten.

Did Saturnalia become Christmas?

How much the ancient Roman holiday of Saturnalia influenced Christmas, the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, is a matter of debate. The two holidays coincided for quite a while after the conversion of Emperor Constantine in the 4th Century AD. Some evidence exists that Christianity gradually incorporated a number of pagan holidays that were held around mid-winter, including Opalia, a celebration of Saturn’s consort Ops, and the birthday of Sol Invictus, the Roman sun god.

In that way, the conversion of the Roman Empire from a pagan society to a Christian one was eased as the familiar customs were adopted for the new religion.

Indeed, an ancient Roman transported to our era would find many Christmas customs familiar. The Gift Giving, carol singing, and the holiday dinner were all things that the Romans engaged in during their own celebrations.

Modern society no longer has slaves, but the fact that Christmas is a child-centered holiday in which children get the bulk of the presents suggests that the social inversion of Saturnalia has seeped into, to a certain extent, the Christmas holiday.