The word “Christmas” (“Navidad” in Spanish), with which we designate Christ´s birthday party, derives from the Latin word “nativitatem” which literally means “birth”, “nacimiento” in Spanish.
In the early centuries of Christianity, the birth of Jesus and his baptism took place on the 6th of January, Epiphany Day (from the Greek επιφάνεια which means: "manifestation, apparition") and it is still held on that date in the Eastern Orthodox Church.
In the West the sixth day of January we celebrate the curious feast of " The three Wise Men", who according to Saint Matthew´s gospel came to offer their gifts to the baby Jesus, who had just been born in Judea. To remember and imitate it, toys and many other kinds of presents are given to children on the 6th of January in some countries like Spain.
The first written reference to Epiphany as a Christian feast appears in the year 361 in Ammianus Marcellinus, XXI, 2.5:
And in order temporarily to conceal this (that he had renounced Christianity), on the day of the festival which the Christians celebrate in the month of January and call the Epiphany, he went to their church, and departed after offering a prayer to their deity in the usual manner.
(Ammianus Marcellinus, Rerum Gestarum John C. Rolfe, Ph.D., Litt.D., Ed.)
In its Latin version:
Et ut haec interim celarentur, feriarum die, quem celebrantes mense Ianuario Christiani Epiphania dictitant, progressus in eorum ecclesiam, sollemniter numine orato discessit.
And Epiphanius of Salamis also concretes in his Panarion, LI, 27, 4 that the birth of Christ was on January 6th:
(…) the Epiphany of the Lord, January 5th, at the dawn of January 6th, and the eleventh day of the Egyptian month Tybi
On the other hand, the birth of the god Mithras, the Persian sun god, is held on December 25th, the day of winter solstice, because on that day the sun begins to appear sooner, that is, it is born again leading to a new solar year.
The word "solstice" derives from the Latin solstitĭum, solis statum (stare or sistere, stop), because of the apparent stillness or slow movement of the sun as it reaches the tropics. Until that day, the day or light space has been decreasing but from that time on the day grows and grows like a newborn.
Mithraism was a religion very widespread throughout the empire by the Roman legions and as a religion of salvation was clearly competing with Christianity. As in many other cases, the date became Christianized moving the celebration of the birth of Jesus to the date of the birth of Mithras.
In many cultures the birth of the New Year is associated with the birth of a divine child, with the birth of a sun god.
Moreover, the Roman calendar fixed the dates of the numerous religious festivals of the inhabitants of Latium in honor of their gods. In December, they celebrated several parties which are reflected in the current calendar precisely in our Christmas party.
In fact, during the Roman Empire three parties were held in December and they were simultaneous in some of the seven days when they were celebrated: the Saturnalia, the Opalia and Sigillaria.
The "sigillaria" are so called from sigilla, or oscilla, small ceramic figures. At this party, trading posts with ceramic figures to give children away as toys were mounted like a fashion market.
These small clay images are memories of ancient sacrificial rituals in which the victim was replaced by the clay figurine.
In these Roman celebrations thus we find different elements of our current Christmas and Carnival.
In late December, they especially celebrated the "Saturnalia", the feast of Saturn, god to whom they attributed the introduction of agriculture and civilized life. Saturn is one of the ancient gods of Latium and his worship and celebration seems to have fallen and reborn several times during the Latin history.
Under Augustus times the feast was celebrated for three days, on the 17th, 18th and 19th of December. Someone, we don´t know who, added a fourth day, then Caligula added a fifth day which he called Iuvenalis (youth´s day), later confirmed by Claudio.
Suetonius, Caligula, XVII:
In the latter, he presented to the men forensic garments and to the women and children purple scarves. To make a perpetual addition to the public joy for ever, he added to the Saturnalia parties one day, which he called “juvenalis” [the juvenile feast]. (Alexander Thomson, Ed.)
posteriore epulo forensia insuper uiris, feminis ac pueris fascias purpurae ac conchylii distribuit. et ut laetitiam publicam in perpetuum quoque augeret, adiecit diem Saturnalibus appellauitque Iuuenalem.
In some texts it´s even spoken of seven days; for example, Martial, in one of the epigrams, the 72, Book XIV, which he devoted entirely to the gifts that were given in the banquet of the parties and therefore it is called Apophoreta that means "gift to take away" (from the Greek ἀπό, apo- from, away and φορεῖν, take), tells us:
this sausage which comes to you in mid-winter came to me before the seven days of the Saturnalia.
Qui venit botulus mediae tibi tempore brumae,
Saturni septem venerat ante dies
.The grammarian Macrobius I, 10 (Macrobius is a Latin grammarian who lived between the IV and V centuries AD). His most important work is precisely “The Saturnalia”, in which a literary banquet is held in the framework of the Saturnalia in which several senators discuss about various historical and mythological subjects, antiques, grammar and especially about the poet Virgil. The first book is devoted to investigate the origin of the Saturnalia precisely.
At the end of the year, once agricultural tasks were just over and they expected for the next sowing or seedtime (according to Varro Saturn he derives from satur and this one from sero, meaning sow), they held a kind of harvest festival, of irrepressible joy and relaxation of the rigid social mores.
During this holidays businesses were paralyzed, children had school vacation, the courts were not working and wrongdoers could not be punished. It is especially interesting and curious the social order reversal or turnabout established between the slaves and the master in these days and that remembers us the legendary Golden Age when everything was abundance, equality and harmony.
On that day the slaves talked to their masters with all freedom of expression and participated in a banquet or festival dressed like their masters, who served them at the table. They also wore the pileus, a hat of red felt that freedmen put on their heads as a symbol of freedom. The pileus is thus the symbol of the general freedom of these days.
(Note: Probably the Phrygian cap of the participants in the French Revolution has its origin in this Roman pileus, used by the slaves during the Saturnalia).
This way it is reflected, among numerous texts, in these ones by Martial and Horace: Martial, XI, 6:
TO ROME, IN SATURNALIA
In these festive days of the scythe-bearing old man (Saturn), when the dice-box rules supreme, you will permit me, I feel assured, cap-clad Rome, to sport in unlaboured verse. You smile: I may do so then, and am not forbidden. (From Bohn's Classical Library (1897))
Unctis falciferi senis diebus,
Regnator quibus imperat fritillus,
Versu ludere non laborioso
Permittis, puto, pilleata Roma.
Risisti; licet ergo, non vetamur.
Hor. Sat. II, 7, 5;
DAVUS: I've listened long, and fain a word would say,
But, as a slave, I dare not.
HORACE: Davus, eh?
DAVUS: Yes, Davus, true and faithful, good enough,
But not too good to be of lasting stuff.
HORACE. Well, take December's licence: I'll not balk
Our fathers' good intentions: have your talk.
(Translated by John Conington, M. A.)
Iamdudum ausculto, et cupiens tibi dicere servus
pauca, reformido. 'Davusne?' Ita. Davus, amicum
mancipium domino, et frugi, quod sit satis ; hoc est,
ut vitale putes. ' Age, libertate Decembri,
quando ita majores voluerunt, utere : narra.'
The following epigrams of Martial collect several of the striking features of this holiday season: casual robes, wearing the pileus, allowed craps, prizes and gifts at the banquet, drunkenness and revelry.
The citizens removed the toga and wore a loose, comfortable, homespun dress called “synthesis” and then they put the pileus on their heads, which reminds us of the Carnival costumes and masks.
Martial, XIV, 1;
TO THE READER, ABOUT THE SATURNALIA FESTIVITIES
Now, while the knights and the lordly senators delight in the festive robe*, and the cap of liberty** is assumed by our Jupiter; and while the slave, as he rattles the dice-box***, has no fear of the Aedile, seeing that the ponds are so nearly frozen****, learn alternately what is allotted to the rich and to the poor*****. Let each make suitable presents to his friends. That these contributions of mine are follies and trifles, and even worse, who does not know? Or who denies what is so evident? But what can I do better, Saturn, on these wet ******days of pleasure, which your son himself has consecrated to you in compensation for the heaven from which he ejected you? ******* Would you have me write of Thebes, or of Troy, or of the crimes of Mycenae? You reply, "Play with nuts. But I don't want to waste even nuts.
* Synthesis was an informal homespun garment which is the usual one on the Saturnalia.
** Even Domitian himself wore the pileus, symbol of the freedom of these days.
*** These days gambling was allowed, banned the rest.
**** A joke these days was to throw someone to the lake, to the iced pylon.
***** They alternated valuable gifts with the ridiculous at the banquet.
****** Because of the drunkenness.
******* Because Jupiter dethroned Saturn.
Synthesibus dum gaudet eques dominusque senator
Dumque decent nostrum pillea sumpta Iovem;
Nec timet aedilem moto spectare fritillo,
Cum videat gelidos tam prope verna lacus:
Divitis alternas et pauperis accipe sortes:
Praemia convivae dent sua quisque suo.
'Sunt apinae tricaeque et si quid vilius istis.'
Quis nescit? vel quis tam manifesta negat?
Sed quid agam potius madidis, Saturne, diebus,
Quos tibi pro caelo filius ipse dedit?
Vis scribam Thebas Troiamve malasve Mycenas?
'Lude,' inquis, 'nucibus'. Perdere nolo nuces.
Martial´s references, who, as I already said, devoted a whole book to the Saturnalia gifts, Book XIV, in addition to the quoted ones, are many, all of them full of wit and poignancy. If anyone is curious, he or she can find them in 2.85 / 4.88 / 5.19 / 5.84/ 7.53 / 10.29 / 11.2 / 11.15 /12.81 / 14.182
Festivals and holidays he usually celebrated very expensively, but sometimes only with merriment. In the Saturnalia, or at any other time when the fancy took him, he distributed to his company clothes, gold and silver; sometimes coins of all sorts, even of the ancient kings of Rome and of foreign nations; sometimes nothing but towels, sponges, rakes*, and tweezers, and other things of that kind, with tickets on them, which were enigmatical, and had a double meaning. He used likewise to sell by lot among his guests articles of very unequal value, and pictures with their fronts reversed; and so, by the unknown quality of the lot, disappoint or gratify the expectation of the purchasers. This sort of traffic went round the whole company, every one being obliged to buy something, and to run the chance of loss or gain with the rest. (Alexander Thomson, Ed.)
Note: *rutabula (rakes) has a double meaning Augustus plays with, because it also means “penis, male member”.
Festos et sollemnes dies profusissime, nonnumquam tantum ioculariter celebrabat. Saturnalibus, et si quando alias libuisset, modo munera diuidebat, uestem et aurum et argentum, modo nummos omnis notae, etiam ueteres regios ac peregrinos, interdum nihil praeter cilicia et spongias et rutabula et forpices atque alia id genus titulis obscuris et ambiguis. solebat et inaequalissimarum rerum sortes et auersas tabularum picturas in conuiuio uenditare incertoque casu spem mercantium uel frustrari uel explere, ita ut per singulos lectos licitatio fieret et seu iactura seu lucrum communicaretur.
Other relevant references can be found in Seneca: Epistles to Lucilius. 18; Pliny: Epistles. IV 9; Servius: Ad Virgili Aeneidam, III, 407. ; Tacitus: Annales XIII, 15; Arrian: Dissertatines. Epictet. I, 25; Lucian of Samosata: Saturnalia, 4.
Every social class participated in the festival and the streets were filled with people shouting "Io Saturnalia", "viva Saturnalia" and offered sacrifices bareheaded; friends exchanged gifts; among the humblest the most common gifts are wax candles (cerei), which were probably used like the moccoli or moccoletti are now used on the last night of the Italian carnival. The material value could be low, but their symbolic and religious meaning was obviously very important for the consolidation of society. Candles symbolized the light getting over with the darkness of Chaos and announcing a new light or new year.
Catullus also refers to gifts and holiday in his poem 14:
Great Gods! What horrid booklet damnable
Unto thine own Catullus thou (perdie!)
Did send, that ever day by day die he
In Saturnalia, first of festivals.
(Sir Richard Francis Burton, Ed.)
Di magni, horribilem et sacrum libellum!
Quem tu scilicet ad tuum Catullum
Misti, continuo ut die periret,
Saturnalibus, optimo dierum!
In summary, in the Saturnalia we find elements of our current Christian Christmas and Carnival: the celebration of the end of the old year and the beginning of a new one; therefore time and life regeneration; burlesque party; uncontrolled environment that remembers the original Chaos; reversal of the social order in the family reversing the roles of master and slaves for just one day to finally go all again to the established order at the end of the party, when Chaos is again a Cosmos or organized space; the banquet or dinner; the gift exchange; the customs reversal typical of Carnival; the permissiveness to celebrate card games banned for a long time by more rigid customs (note, for evidence, such as Easter, next to the Carnivals, card games were allowed for just one day or they were more tolerant with the card game only that day piously arguing it was done in memory of the sharing of Jesus’ robe by the soldiers who kept him …); the market with ceramic figurines as a toy gift for children.
And in their deepest sense, parties serve or play the important social function of permanently reopen the natural cycles of time and regenerate in annual coincidence the social established order.