Many Christian holidays incorporate the original pagan ceremonies of the fire festivals and feasts.
During the days of the Roman Empire, Saturnalia always fell on the winter solstice, December 17, the shortest day on the Roman Calendar. Saturn was such an important element in the Roman economy that the officials kept government treasury in the god’s temple.
The Lord of Misrule
The celebrants exchanged gifts, suspended all disagreements and feuds and in general, a good time was had by every one except the Saturnalian King. Usually the participants nominated a slave or a criminal to preside over the festivities. He was selected by a roll of the dice to be the “Lord of Misrule”. He dressed in royal clothes, ate well, issued orders and was revered as a king until the end of the festival, when his subjects led him to the altar of Saturn and executed him.
Saturnalia was phased into the Christian holiday when Emperor Constantine, who ruled from 306 CE to 337 CE, converted to Christianity. The Emperor worshiped the sun god, Sol Invictus, but he felt that hell might be in his future as he grew older and closer to his own death. Since he had his spouse and his oldest son executed among many others, the aging Constantine thought it might be prudent to confess his sins and become a Christian on his death bed before it was too late. He went on to declare Christianity to be the state religion of the Roman empire.
Mithras and Sol Invictus
As a Roman mystery religion, Mithraism was a secretive cult and researchers are still working to understand more about the beliefs which were never recorded. The religion first appeared at 136 CE and most of the followers were Roman soldiers, government employees, freedmen and slaves.
Initiates to the cult swore that they would not reveal any information about its rituals. It originated in Persia with the worship of the sun god, Mithras, in caves. Bulls and cattle were involved in Mithraism; many Roman sculptures and paintings show the ritual killing of a bull. The practitioners may have killed bulls and bathed in the blood or drank it as part of the ceremonies. They believed the bull’s blood would make them stronger and more powerful.
The rituals involved a communal meal, initiation and hazing of new members. Mithraism was popular throughout the empire until Constantine converted the Empire to Christianity.
Although women were not permitted as members, the religion celebrated Mithras’ virgin mother who gave birth to the god on December 25. Mithras had 12 disciples, promised an eternal life for those who deserved it, and he rose again from his death after 3 days. The god performed miracles, remained a virgin throughout his life and promised to save humanity from its own evil. The followers remembered him at their meetings with a ritual meal consisting of wine and bread. The wine would represent Mithras’ blood and the bread, his flesh. The many parallels to Christianity are obvious.
Mass of Christ
Priests held the first “Mass of Christ” on December 25, 354 CE, and the holiday was set for Christmas to continue for at least the next 1700 years. If the Roman and pagan aspects were removed from the Christmas holiday as we know it, the holiday celebration would be a very different event than what we see every year.