A Candid History of Christmas: First There was Winter

Ave, Caesar! Io, Saturnalia! (1880) by Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1880, with the Praetorian Guard hailing Claudius (veiling himself in a curtain) as the new emperor after the assassination of Caligula. / Akron Art Museum, Wikimedia Commosn

By Dr. Bruce David Forbes
Chair, Philosophy and Religious Studies Department
Morningside College

To understand what Christmas has become, first we should consider winter.

For the moment, set aside everything you have heard about the baby Jesus in a manger, and shepherds and wise men, and think instead about winter. Of course, the characteristics of winter vary with location because, depending upon where you live, winter is a more dramatic reality for some people than for others. I assume that most readers of this book are North American, and thus I will emphasize the Northern Hemisphere, but an emphasis on the Northern Hemisphere also reflects the early and medieval history of Christianity. The Christian church was born in the Mediterranean region, but within a few centuries its headquarters became centered in Rome and Constantinople, a northward shift from its Jerusalem beginnings. Then Christianity began to spread throughout Europe, and the further north it moved, the more winter became a factor.

By cgcowboy, Pixabay, Creative Commons

So, what is winter like? The answer is not difficult: basically, it is cold and it is dark. The further north you move, the rain turns to sleet and snow, and the temperatures drop low enough to discourage much of the outdoor work and play that human beings enjoy the rest of the year. And the days are shorter, with so many more hours of darkness.

Several years ago I led a group of college students on a May interim trip to Alaska, and my experience there caused me to think a lot about winter. We were based in the little village of Willow, Alaska, about an hour and a half ’s drive north of Anchorage, still in the southern half of that enormous state. May is a beautiful time in Alaska, essentially spring, when both leaves and tourists begin to appear. What caused me to think about winter was a conversation with the minister of a little mission church in Willow who mentioned that he brought seminary interns to Alaska not in May but in January, when they could work with people who were in the midst of their greatest struggles. He said that the temperatures could get down to 50 degrees below zero, before calculating wind chill, with little more than five hours of daylight per day. That is the season of the year in Alaska when depression settles in, when alcoholism and other forms of chemical dependency are at their worst, and when incidents of domestic violence soar. That, he said, is when people really need help.

My imagination began to wander to people in the medieval and Renaissance-Reformation eras in central and northern Europe. Without the modern conveniences I take for granted, what must it have been like for them to keep their homes warm, or to get work done, or simply to cope with so much darkness? Even now, when we have thermostats and electric lights, we still talk about seasonal affective disorder and cabin fever, indications of our continuing battle with winter.

Especially in northern regions, winter remains a challenge for human beings to survive. In a way, the approach of winter is a little like walking into death, hoping we will emerge on the other side. The natural world accents that feeling, as the trees and other plants appear to die, and animals hibernate, and blizzards threaten. Survivors look forward to the new life and exhilaration that spring will bring.

Even before studying the history and anthropology of early cultures, we could guess what human beings might do to cope with these realities of winter. A great idea would be to organize a big, blowout, midwinter party. It would be perfect. People could have something to look forward to for the first half of winter, the preparations could be a welcome distraction, and the party itself would be a blast. Then, once it was over, the remainder of winter would be that much shorter, until spring finally brought liberation from the cold and darkness.

Also, again before studying early cultures, we could guess what the party would be like. When should it happen? The ideal time would be when the days stop getting shorter and are poised to begin lengthening again, in mid to late December. And we can guess other features of the party. First of all, it would have to be a festival of lights, pushing back the oppressive darkness, featuring candles and torches and burning logs. It would also make sense to highlight evergreens as symbols or decorations, because the greenery could serve as signs of life in the midst of apparent death. We might look for other plants that stay green and, against the norm, even bear fruit in the middle of winter, like holly, or mistletoe. Of course, there would be feasting and drinking, probably to excess, as there is at almost any party. Obviously, a midwinter celebration would involve gatherings of people, perhaps the whole village, or selected neighbors, friends, and family; an individual might sponsor or attend several such gatherings
throughout the festivity period. As the midwinter festivities go on year after year, special music would undoubtedly develop for the season. And, of course, many parties involve gifts.

All of this is not just speculation. This kind of midwinter celebration is indeed what human beings did throughout Europe, in many different cultures, before Christianity, and we will look at two specific examples in a moment. Mulling over the commonsense appeal of midwinter celebrations, as sketched out here, many persons today are surprised to realize that much of what they love about the Christmas season is not really Christmas at all. We love the lights, the evergreen decorations, the music and the food, the chance to get together with family and friends, and the special feeling of warmth that comes with the festivities. Yet all of these features have no necessary connection with a story of a baby Jesus in a manger. Instead they are the predictable characteristics of midwinter festivities.

Stonehenge / Photo by Peter Trimmings, Wikimedia Commons

This is what it means when some people say that Christmas has pagan roots. In essence, “pagan” is a word that means non-Christian, or in this case, pre-Christian. And yes, it is true that midwinter celebrations existed throughout Europe before Jesus was born and before the Christian religion developed. Seeing a contest between “pagan” religions and Christianity, some Christians try to protect themselves from any association with rival religions. Another way to view it is that a midwinter celebration is simply an understandable human impulse, to help people survive winter. If a culture did not already have such a celebration, people would make one up. Participating in a midwinter festival is an indication of our common humanity, across many cultures and many religions. It just makes sense, as a human coping mechanism.

What are some actual examples of such pre-Christian winter festivals? The evidence is often limited, so we cannot describe them in the kind of detail that is possible for more recent times. Three general points should be kept in mind.

First, because of variations in climate, agricultural patterns, and changing calendars, the winter festivals were not all in mid-December but tended to occur more broadly over two months or so, from what we now call November into the early days of January. Influenced by the Roman calendar, we now celebrate the “new year” on January , but there were many possible occasions to mark a new year: when the harvest was in and farmers had leisure to look ahead (November), or at the winter solstice, when daylight once again begins to lengthen (December), or at the beginning of the Roman annual calendar, which falls only a few days after the winter solstice (January). As cultures interacted with one another, some of the customs of these various winter festivals migrated back and forth across a two to three month period.

Second, the further back we go, the fewer documents we have to provide a description of the customs of a people. We then have to draw conclusions from physical artifacts, or we “reconstruct” festivals “from survivals in popular custom.”[1] That simply means that we examine some of the customs in more recent times and speculate about how long they have existed and how they might have started. Yet, although we may be uncertain about some of the details, and scholars may argue and revise specific theories, the general features of midwinter festivities we have just summarized arise again and again.

Third, the character of the winter celebrations was shaped not just by changing weather alone but also by winter’s impact on the lifestyle of agricultural people, in preindustrial societies. Late fall and early winter brought the harvest of crops and also the slaughter of some livestock, so that there would be fewer animals to feed throughout the winter. With no freezers available,
some meat might be stored for a while in the season’s cold temperatures, and other meat would be salted for preservation. Most people would prefer to eat the fresh meat right away, when it tasted best. In addition, alcohol could be fermented from the recently harvested crops. These agricultural realities all created the perfect combination for exuberant parties in winter: leisure, fresh meat, harvested crops, and alcohol.[2]

Saturnalia and Yule

Saturnalia festival dance / Creative Commons

Two examples of the resulting winter festivals are the Saturnalia of ancient Rome, and Yule or Jul in northern Europe. Both illustrate the common features that we speculated would be part of winter parties, and both influenced Christmas when Christianity spread into Europe. Saturnalia began in Rome at least two hundred years before the lifetime of Jesus, apparently arising out of some kind of agricultural harvest festival. Theories vary about the origins of the Roman god Saturn, but by the era of Christianity he was viewed as an agricultural god who, in an earlier golden age, had established a village on the Capitoline Hill, one of the seven hills of Rome. Legends said that he had taught people how to till the soil and had presided over an era of prosperity, peace, and happiness. Every December 17 a sacrifice was offered to Saturn in the Roman Forum, but what mattered most to the general public was the feasting and partying that followed, varying from three to seven days, until December 23. Hence Saturnalia is sometimes a singular term, referring to the overall celebration, or a plural term, referring to the several days.

In the words of the Oxford Classical Dictionary, ”The Saturnalia were the merriest festival of the year, ‘the best of days.’”[3] No one worked during this period, except those whose help was needed to provide food for the lavish feasts. Friends visited each other from home to home and also joined in boisterous street processions. Houses, great halls, and streets were decorated with laurel, green trees, and shrubs, illuminated by candles and lamps. Major bonfires were lit at high ground where many citizens could see them. People exchanged small gifts, such as wax candles, wax fruit, and clay dolls.

The two major themes of the idealized Saturnalian golden age were abundance and equality. “In this era of joy and plenty, people lived together in harmony and shared equally in the earth’s bounty.”[4] In real life, people of Rome were treated very differently, depending on whether they were part of the nobility, or artisans, or slaves, but in the few days of the annual Saturnalia celebration everyone was to be treated equally. Lucian of Samosota (about 120-180), a Greek commentator on Roman culture and society, wrote a dialogue between Saturn (also called Cronus) and his priest, and the conversation included rules of the Saturnalia. During the celebration, Saturn proclaimed, “Let every man be treated equal, slave and freeman, poor and rich,” and he also directed that “no one may be ill-tempered or cross or threaten anybody.” When it came to banquets, the guidelines included:

Each man shall take the couch where he happens to be. Rank, family, or wealth
shall have little influence on privilege [that is, on a man’s place at table].

All shall drink the same wine, and neither stomach trouble nor headache
shall give the rich man an excuse for being the only one to drink the better

All shall have their meat on equal terms. The waiters shall not show favor
to anyone. . . . Neither are large portions to be placed before one and tiny ones
before another, nor a ham for one and a pig’s jaw for another—all must be
treated equally. . . .

When a rich man gives a banquet to his servants, his friends shall aid him
in waiting on them.[5]

The last instruction especially refers to a practice of social inversion, or a reversal of roles. Not only were slaves excused from their duties and not subject to punishments during the Saturnalia, but masters sometimes waited on slaves at banquets.

Even more, a Mock King would be chosen by lot to preside over the Saturnalia, which meant that a person of any social standing had a chance to become the temporary king. In Lucian’s dialogue, Saturn said to his priest that if he became king “you not only escape silly orders but can give them yourself, telling one man to shout out something disgraceful about himself, another to dance naked, pick up the flute-girl, and carry her three times around the house.”[6] Later Christmas practices in medieval Europe included similar customs that temporarily elevated average people, although it is unclear if they derived directly from the Mock Kings of the Roman Saturnalia. In communities of medieval France, Switzerland, and other areas a boy was chosen as “bishop for a day” on Holy Innocents’ Day, December 28, when Christians remembered Herod’s massacre of children. In late medieval and Renaissance England, some towns chose a “lord of misrule” as a sort of jester to preside over merrymaking in the Christmas season. On the eve of Epiphany (to be explained in the next chapter), many European cultures dropped a bean, a coin, or some other token into a cake or pudding, and whoever found the bean in his or her piece of cake would be anointed King of the Bean, or Queen of the Bean. All of these practices seem remarkably similar to the earlier Mock Kings of the Roman Saturnalia.

As some descriptions have hinted already, the Saturnalia gained a reputation for wanton behavior, with excessive drinking, gambling, and other unrestrained activities. Again in Lucian’s dialogue, Saturn said that in his festive time he could “drink and be drunk, shout, play games and dice, appointing masters of the revels, feast the servants, sing stark naked, clap and shake, and sometimes even get pushed head-first into cold water with my face smeared with soot.”[7] Clearly he was describing the behavior of the crowds, not himself alone. If you look up “saturnalia” in an English-language dictionary today, one of the definitions will be something like “an unrestrained often licentious celebration: orgy,” associated with excess and extravagance.[8]

Thus, the Roman Saturnalia serves as the first example of a winter festival that existed prior to Christianity, and it fits many of our general expectations: light from candles and fires, greenery, feasting, gifts, and social gatherings, all in mid-December. In addition, the Saturnalia included
customs of social inversion that might not always be expected in winter festivals, but they set a precedent whose echoes arose later in European Christmas celebrations.

Scandinavian Jul market shop / Creative Commons

A second example is Yule, or Jul, the Scandinavian equivalent, in northern Europe. Geographically it involves the Teutonic peoples in what we now call northern Germany, Scandinavia, and the British Isles. Here our information about pre-Christian practices is especially sketchy, because in some regions Christian missionaries were busy transcribing the native languages as best they could, thus introducing literacy. In those situations, all of the written records would be post-Christian and thus potentially influenced by Christianity. To describe cultural practices before the introduction of Christianity, scholars have built theories on the basis of artifacts and surviving customs (and, as I said before, guesswork).

These days, people assume that Yule or Jul is simply another name for Christmas, and many dictionaries define the terms that way: “the feast of the nativity of Jesus Christ.”[9] However, the terms Yule and Jul clearly existed in the region before Christianity arrived, associated with winter activities of some sort, although scholars are not exactly sure what the words meant. One theory argues for “wheel,” referring to the cycle of the year, and another theory claims “sacrifice” or “feast,” referring to religious animal sacrifices and/or winter banquets and celebrations. Only later did the words Yule or Jul become associated with Christmas, the imported winter festival.

Turning to Old Norse customs as an example of northern European practices, we find Jul festivities in early winter, at the conclusion of the slaughter of livestock and the brewing of ale, with the feasting and drinking that would naturally follow. The celebrations were probably mixed with animal sacrifices and other religious observances to encourage fertility in the coming year. One piece of evidence comes from the writings of historian Snorri Sturluson (1179-1241), whose Heimskringla told the story of Norway’s early kings, based upon poetry that had been passed on through oral tradition. He wrote, “It was ancient custom that when sacrifice was made all farmers were to come to the temple and bring along with them the food they needed while the feast lasted. At this feast all were to take part in the drinking of ale. Also all kinds of livestock were killed in connection with it.”[10] As additional evidence, the oldest Christian laws enacted in Norway included a ban on animal sacrifice, which suggests that animal sacrifice was a common Viking practice prior to Christianity.

With a number of varying theories from scholars, “what most researchers do agree upon is that ritual beer drinking featured prominently” in the Viking festivities. When Snorri Sturluson quoted a poem about Harald Fairhair, the king who united Norway into a single realm, two key words
state that Harald intended to “drink jul” even when he was away from Norway. It is an interesting phrase. If someone said they were going to “drink Christmas,” we would assume that drinking was a key part of their celebration, and we can assume the same thing in the case of the Viking Jul. The drinking may even have had religious connections. Kathleen Stokker, an American scholar of Norwegian folklore and language, reports a belief that “the celebrants who ritually passed the drinking horn from mouth to mouth sought an ecstatic connection with each other and with the gods.”[11]

It is likely that the Viking Jul also involved ancestor worship, beliefs about the return of the dead, and ghost stories. To understand a possible connection, imagine yourself huddled in a cabin in the far north as a blizzard rages outside, accompanied by howling winds and strange sounds. It might seem as if creatures or spirits were riding across the sky. Folklore from many areas of Europe provided different stories that would explain the sounds, in what became known as the wild hunt, Asgardsreid (Asgard’s ride), Gabriel’s hounds, and other names. In Norway it was the Gandreid, or spirits’ ride, in which spirits of those who had died in the preceding year, an army of the dead, roared through the night. In many cases in northern Europe the wild hunt was led by Odin (Wotan in Germany), a somewhat frightening one-eyed god, with white hair and a beard, who rode a flying eight-legged horse. In the last century scholars have argued that beliefs about the wild hunt were so similar throughout northern Europe that they must have resulted, not simply from frightening winter weather, but also from the spread of secret religious societies centered on the mythology of Odin. This attention to the spirits of the dead also made Jul a natural time for ghost stories, a common practice in the season of the year that was dominated by darkness and leisure. It makes me think of camping as a child, sitting around a fire at night and telling scary stories. Viking winter oral traditions contain just such tales. (At a later time in England, even Charles Dickens’s Christmas Carol is essentially a ghost story.)

One further feature of the Jul observances was fire. Bonfires and candles not only brought light but were also believed to keep evil spirits away, or to warm the spirits of the dead. Best known today is the Yule Log, a practice that probably predated the introduction of Christianity. Families
and communities selected huge logs that could burn in a fireplace for days, and charred remains of the previous year’s log were used to ignite the new one. In addition, evergreen branches may have been hung on doorposts and around windows, in the hope that their prickly needles also would ward off evil spirits.

So this was Yule or Jul. E. O. James, a scholar of seasonal celebrations, summarized Yule this way: as winter began and cattle were slaughtered in northern Europe, “a great banquet was held on the fresh meat, accompanied with fire rites and the usual expressions of autumnal rejoicings, coupled with the placation of the dead and the ancestral spirits.”[12] And yes, ritual drinking was included. As in the case of the Saturnalia, once again we notice predictable features of winter parties, including light, greenery, feasts, and social gatherings.

When a birthday celebration for Jesus finally got started and then moved into Europe, it encountered and eventually mingled with already well-established traditions like the Saturnalia and Yule. Keep all of this in mind as background to understand the development of Christmas.


  1. Clement A. Miles, Christmas Customs and Traditions: Their History and Significance (New York: Dover Publications, 1976), 173; first published in 1912, under a different title.
  2. Stephen Nissenbaum, The Battle for Christmas (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996), 5-6.
  3. Simon Hornblower and Antony Spawforth, eds., The Oxford Classical Dictionary, 3rd ed., s.v. “Saturnalia.”
  4. Tanya Gulevich, Encyclopedia of Christmas (Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2000), 556.
  5. Lucian, Lucian VI, trans. K. Kilburn, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1959), 107, 113, 115.
  6. Lucian, Lucian VI, 93.
  7. Lucian, Lucian VI, 91.
  8. Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed., s.v. “saturnalia.”
  9. Webster’s, s.v. “Yule.”
  10. Quoted by Kathleen Stokker, Keeping Christmas: Yuletide Traditions in Norway and the New Land (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2000), 7.
  11. Stokker, Keeping Christmas, 6. I borrow much of the information and several phrases in these paragraphs from Stokker.
  12. E. O. James, Seasonal Feasts and Festivals (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1961), 292.

Originally published by University of California Press (2007) under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States license.