20 Biblical Traditions Heavily Influenced by Other Ancient Cultures

“Saturnalia”, by Antoine Callet (c. 1783). Wikimedia Commons.

19. Borrowing heavily from concurrent pagan beliefs, the Christian tradition of Christmas drew significant inspiration from already existing practices

Despite never specifically stating the actual date of the birth of Jesus in the Bible, Christian traditions have become immeasurably connected to the idea the historical figure was born on December 25. Considerable discussion around the turn of the third century of the Common Era centered on the precise date, with Augustine of Hippo, among others arguing strenuously that Christ had been born on the shortest day of the year in the Roman calendar. However, early Christian sources predating formal institution of a December birth in the 4th century equally record recognition that, as is the consensus today, this was not the true date but was instead influenced by longstanding pagan traditions.

Coinciding with several pagan festivals pertaining to the winter solstice, including also the birth of Sol Invictus, the choice of Jesus’ birth date draws significant inspiration from the ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia. Celebrating the divine Saturn, held between December 17 and December 23, the festival included noteworthy parallels to the Christian convention; among these include a familial feast and the private and personal exchanges of gifts. Even Saturnalia, as with much of the Roman pantheon, borrows from earlier traditions, most notably from the Greek holiday of Kronia: a celebration of the Greek Titan, Cronus, and father of Zeus.