December 17, 497 BC: Before Christmas and Kwanzaa, Saturnalia!

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A Brief History

On December 17, 497 BC, the Romans celebrated their Pagan holiday, Saturnalia, a celebration honoring their god of agriculture (and a bunch of other things) with partying and sacrifice.  Gift giving, feasts, partying and a carnival atmosphere surrounded Saturnalia.

Digging Deeper

Celebrations and holidays around the time of the Winter Solstice (December 21 on our calendar) are common throughout the ancient and modern world.  Nowadays we have Christmas for Christians, a date that really has nothing to do with the birth of Christ but is believed by many to be chosen to compete with pagan and Jewish holidays.

In the Jewish faith and culture there is Hanukkah (pick your favorite spelling) that is celebrated December 6 through December 14 this year (2015).  Also known as the Festival of Lights and less formally as Eight Crazy Nights (at least by Adam Sandler), the spelling and pronunciation has vexed Christian Americans for eternity.

In African-American culture, we also have Kwanzaa, a holiday invented by a convicted felon (Maulana Karenga) in 1965.  Celebrated from December 26 through January 1, this holiday has had moderate success taking hold despite the fact that the target audience has ethnic roots in West Africa and much of the trappings of the holiday are actually East African, and despite the inventor’s legal issues.

Saturnalia is also a sort of festival of light, leading up to the Winter Solstice which is the shortest day of the year with the least amount of sunlight.  It marks the period where after days will become longer and longer until the trend reverses at the Summer Solstice.  Ancient Greeks had a similar happy time they called the Kronia.

Saturnalia continued in Roman culture through the 4th Century AD, when it was supplanted by the Christian holiday, Christmas.  Other pagan cultures had similar celebrations of the Winter Solstice, as evidenced by the stones at Stonehenge being aligned with the sunset at the Winter Solstice and the ruins of Newgrange in Ireland aligned with sunrise of the Winter Solstice.  Scandinavian and Germanic people also had similar celebrations lasting 12 days.  It may have helped the party atmosphere that alcoholic drinks such as wine and hard cider would have been ready right about that time each year!  The Orient, Middle East, and Slavic lands were also partial to a celebration around the time of the Winter Solstice, making it virtually universal in the world starting from Neolithic times.

On the Jerry Seinfeld television sitcom, Seinfeld, the term “Festivus for the Rest of Us” was coined in the 1997 episode, “The Strike”.  This episode was meant to parody the other Winter Solstice timed holidays and is celebrated on December 23.  It is said to be a non-commercial event celebrated around a plain aluminum pole and labeling simple everyday occurrences as “Festivus miracles.”  (Works for me!)

Question for students (and subscribers): Do you celebrate any of these December holidays?  Do you have a favorite?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Nissenbaum, Stephen.  The Battle for Christmas: A Social and Cultural History of Our Most Cherished Holiday.  Vintage, 1997.


About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.