The Greek and Roman origins of Christmas traditions

Holidays and rituals seem to have always been a universal aspect of the human experience, almost inextricably linked with belonging to a community, an organized society and, possibly, a culture. In the western world, calendars and feast days have for many centuries been based on Christian chronology and observance. But, many of these traditions can be traced back to ancient Greece and Rome. This is demonstrated in many ritual practices, including Christmas customs.

Winter solstice

It is widely believed that Christianity incorporated the pagan festivals, having first reshaped their content to fit the new religious context. Christmas, in particular, is viewed by most scholars as a Christian substitute for the pagan winter solstice celebrations; Christ’s birth is not given with an exact date in the Bible, and from descriptions of the Nativity, it would in fact be highly unlikely that it took place in the middle of winter.

It is thus believed that the date of December 25 was chosen to coincide with the date of the winter solstice in the Roman calendar. There has in fact been speculation that the exact date was chosen because it coincided with a previous Roman festival called Die Natalis Solis Invicti, meaning the birthday of the Undefeated Sun. Sol Invictus was the official sun god of the last Roman Empire; its cult was established as an official religion by the Roman emperor Aurelian on December 25, 274 AD 79) and as the “light that shines in darkness” (John 1: 5).

Crowns and Saturnalia

Other festivals that are said to have had a direct influence on Christmas and New Year celebrations are the Greek Crown and Roman Saturnalia.

Saturnalia by Antoine-François Callet (detail)

The ancient Athenian festival of Crown took place on the 12th day of Hékatombaion, the first month of Attic calendar. It coincided with midsummer and honored the father god Kronos (Cronos), considered to be a patron of the harvest. Although it was celebrated in the summer, it had a major influence on the most popular Roman holiday, the famous Saturnalia, dedicated to Saturn, the Roman equivalent of Cronos. The holiday of Saturnalia was first celebrated on December 17, but was later extended to three and eventually seven days (until December 23). Instead of harvest time, the Roman version of the celebration was actually tied to the winter sowing season.

The Athenian Crown It was a holiday that only lasted a day, but was even observed by the slaves, who sat at the same table as their masters to enjoy the fruits of their hard labor. It also included offerings, especially fruit and bread. Saturnalia was also a public holiday, associated with merry drinking and the exchange of small gifts, such as candles, wax fruit models, and wax statuettes; in this case, too, the slaves were spared their usual chores and took part in the lively feast.

People also decorated their homes with evergreen branches and sprigs of mistletoe, a symbol of eternal life but also of love and peace; many consider these customs to be a predecessor of Christmas wreaths, mistletoe decorations, and even the Christmas tree tradition. Also, according to some sources, a false king (saturnalius princeps) was usually chosen to preside over the festivities for several days. This custom would be at the origin of the tradition of kings cake, served on Epiphany Day in France and in some Spanish-speaking and German-speaking countries; the cake, usually made of some sort of sweet dough or puff pastry, has a small figurine hidden inside. Whoever finds it in their slice of cake is offered some sort of prize, and may be crowned with a paper crown.

Cult of Dionysus

Another divine figure traditionally associated with Jesus Christ is the Greek god Dionysus, and its Roman equivalent, Bacchus. Dionysus was the god of wine, grape harvest, vegetation, ritual madness, celebration and theater. Its origin story revolves around his birth – spawned by Zeus, the ruler of the gods – which is later followed by his violent death (most famous, the dismemberment by the Titans); Dionysus is then restored to new life by rebirth, or resurrection after the reassembly of his remains.

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The Triumph of Bacchus, Diego Velázquez (Prado Museum)

Dionysus is an archetype dying and resurrected deity, and many scholars have pointed out his attributes shared with Jesus Christ; in his book Dionysos, Richard seaford points out that the Greek god of wine “was the son of the divine ruler of the world and a mortal mother, appeared in human form among mortals” and also his “seemingly helpless submission (in the Homeric Hymn to the Pirates, in Bacchantes to King Pentheus) is transformed into its opposite by the epiphany ”.

Parallels have also been drawn regarding the association of Jesus and Dionysus with wine; drink is often used as symbolism in the Gospel, and turning water into wine is a recurring theme in allegories about Jesus as well as Dionysus. It is also worth mentioning some of the The epithets of Dionysus, including Eleuthera and Luaios, meaning liberator from worries and sorrows, and Sôtêr “The Savior”.

Although the most important and famous festival associated with Dionysian worship was the ‘Dionysia of the city’, also known as the Great Dionysia, which took place in the spring (with some of its traditions still surviving in Apokriés, the Greek carnival), the oldest would be the “Rural DionysiaWhich was held in the month of Poseideon, corresponding to the second half of December and the first half of January, and therefore straddling the winter solstice. The festival celebrated the cultivation of the vine and included offerings of bread and fruit, drinking wine, singing and dancing. Because different towns in Attica held their festivals on different days, it was possible for spectators to visit more than one festival per season.


The holiday of Pyanopsia (Where Pyanepsia) was held in Athens in honor of Apollo, god of light, healing and music, in the month of Pyanepsion (October / November), which is actually the name of the festival. Pyanopsia Means “bean stew,” in reference to the sacred offering of a rich stew of pulses to the temple of Apollo, in honor of the fall harvest. The people also thanked the god with the offering of the iresione, an olive or laurel branch, tied with purple or white wool, and decorated with fresh fruits and small pastries made with honey, oil and wine. The branch was sprinkled with wine and carried in procession by a singing boy to the temple of Apollo, where it hung on the door. According to some sources, the doors of the houses were decorated in the same way; this too is considered a predecessor of Christmas decorations.

Father Christmas and Saint Basil

Perhaps the character most associated with Christmas folklore in the world is that of Santa Claus. The modern depiction of Santa Claus as a cheerful man with a white beard carrying gifts for children is based on an amalgamation of several different (mostly European) traditions, drawing inspiration from the British figure of Santa Claus and the Germanic deity Wodan. But above all, it seems linked to the historical figure of Saint Nicholas, as evidenced by his name (Santa Claus a phonetic derivation from Dutch “Sinterklaas”, Meaning Saint-Nicolas).

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Left: Saint Nicholas of Myra, 13th century icon, Saint Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai (Egypt), Right: Basil of Caesarea, 11th century mosaic

The current Saint Nicholas of Myra (270 – 343) was a Christian bishop of Greek origin from the city of Myra in Asia Minor during the time of the Roman Empire. He was also known as Nicholas the Wonderworker, as he is said to have performed many miracles. He is revered in many countries as the patron saint of sailors, merchants, repentant thieves, children and students, among others. Many legends about him show him helping the poor and needy, especially through secret gifts; according to one of the most famous stories about him, he once saved three girls from forced prostitution by dropping a bag of gold coins out of their house window every night for three nights so their father could pay their dowry.

In Greek tradition, the figure of the bearded old man carrying a gift is identified as Saint Basil, instead of Saint Nicholas; It is thus believed that he brings gifts on New Year’s Day, which in Greece is also the feast of St. Basil. Basil of Caesarea, also called Saint Basil the Great (330 – 379), was a famous and influential theologian, and bishop of Caesarea Mazaca in Cappadocia, Asia Minor. Basil was known for his generosity towards the underprivileged; he organized a soup kitchen and distributed food to the poor during a famine following a drought, and he gave his personal family heirloom for the benefit of the poor in his diocese.

On New Year’s Day, Greek families serve vasilopita, following a tradition very similar to the kings cake mentioned above. Its name also recalls the word king, but it is believed to have taken its name from Saint Basil (in Greek, the name Vassilios which means royal, royal). Although it is called a tart (pita), it consists of a simple sweet bread, usually round in shape. There is a coin hidden in the bread, and it is believed that whoever finds it will be lucky for that year. Much like the custom of the kings cake, some also believe that vasilopita originated from the feast of Kronia and its Roman equivalent, the Saturnalia.

[Greek News Agenda]

Ancient Greece, apokries, Christmas traditions, Die Natalis Solis Invicti, Dionysos, Hekatombaion, Jesus Christ, Kronia and Saturnalia, Pyanopsia, Rome, Saint Basil, Saint Nicholas, Father Christmas, Undefeated Sun, Winter Solstice
GCT team

This article was researched and written by a member of the GCT team.

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