The Meaning Of Christmas (Or What Did The Romans Ever Do For Us?)


The familiar nativity scene depicting the birth of Jesus.

I am currently thirty years young. For every one of my thirty years I have celebrated a religious festival without actually being religious. Naturally the first several years are hardly my fault as, like the majority of people I know, I was brought up to believe in Christmas and Santa Claus.

At home and at school we were taught about the nativity. We were told the story of the virgin birth, the star leading the three wise men to Jesus’ crib in the manger, and the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. In school we would sing Christian hymns like “Away in a Manger”, “Silent Night” and “We Three Kings”. A special school assembly would be held and the nativity scene played out in front of students and parents.

For years now I have had a niggling feeling of guilt when it comes to Christmas. I feel like I am a ‘Christmas hypocrite’. How can I possibly celebrate a religious festival when I am not religious? What right have I to shun the church all year round and then use it as an excuse to exchange gifts, over indulge my ‘glutton gland’ and drink my weight in alcohol?

However recently I have discovered some interesting facts about Christmas, or at least the time of year we refer to as Christmas. Firstly, Jesus’ birth didn’t happen in December. How do we know this? The Bible tells us. How? Let me explain.

Luke 2.8 states “And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night.”  However, sheep would only have been outside from late March to early November. In the winter they would have been undercover. This puts Jesus’ birth well and truly outside of December.

So why do we celebrate Christmas in December? Well it was yet another clever move by Christianity to amalgamate their celebrations with another religion. Originally Christmas was held in March (or possibly April) but it never caught on so it was moved to December. Why December? In December the Romans used to have a festival of their own called ‘Saturnalia’ which usually encompassed a week in mid-December.


The Roman God Saturn who was worshipped at Saturnalia

So what is the link between Saturnalia and Christmas?

Saturn was an agricultural God, so it makes sense that the Romans would celebrate him with a feast. Being gluttonous was synonymous with Saturnalia and thus became synonymous with Christmas. As part of the festivities, gifts were also exchanged with family and friends. Sound familiar? This is why we associate gift giving with Christmas. Lastly, binge-drinking. Why do we also increase our alcohol intake at Christmas? Admittedly we tend to do this on any special occasion, but the Romans were notorious binge drinkers and so the custom of drinking till you spew became synonymous with Christmas too.

“You are not Roman” I hear you say. That is true but I know more about Roman history than I do about the teachings of the Bible. My surname Lawrence is derived form the Latin named ‘Laurentius’ meaning ‘from Laurentum’, which was an ancient Roman city called Latium near Ostia.

So the next time someone tries to tell you about the true meaning of “Christmas” being about the birth of Jesus, offer your new found wisdom to them that actually the true meaning of Christmas (or Saturnalia) is exactly what we do anyway. We give gifts, over eat and binge drink.

However should someone wish you a Merry Christmas, Saturnalia, Hanukkah, or any of the other season’s greetings please smile and wish them the same back or give them a greeting from your own culture or religion. Please don’t get offended, for if an individual offers you a sincere pleasantry and you get offended by it then maybe you should take a long walk off a very high cliff.

Look after yourselves people, enjoy the time spent with your loved ones and I hope you have a wonderful New Year.


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