Before Christianity, there were many pagan religious festivals around December 25. The best known were those of Saturnalia from December 17 to 24, the cult of Mithras which is celebrated on December 25 and the festival of the sigillaria at the end of December.
Before Christianity, there were many pagan religious festivals around December 25. The best known were those of Saturnalia from December 17 to 24, the cult of Mithras which is celebrated on December 25 and the festival of the sigillaria at the end of December.

© 1995, CHIN-Canadian Heritage Information Network. All Rights Reserved.

In the Roman Empire, Saturnalia was a religious festival celebrated in Rome and the provinces between December 17 and 24. It commemorated the reign of Saturn, god of grain and agriculture. It was the manifestation of the festivals of liberty (libertas decembris) and the Underworld. Roman slaves had a day of freedom when they became the masters and were served by their own masters who acted as slaves. The Festival of the Madmen in the Middle Ages can be traced back to Saturnalia.
In the Roman Empire, Saturnalia was a religious festival celebrated in Rome and the provinces between December 17 and 24. It commemorated the reign of Saturn, god of grain and agriculture. It was the manifestation of the festivals of liberty (libertas decembris) and the Underworld. Roman slaves had a day of freedom when they became the masters and were served by their own masters who acted as slaves. The Festival of the Madmen in the Middle Ages can be traced back to Saturnalia.

© 1995, CHIN-Canadian Heritage Information Network. All Rights Reserved.

Saturnalia was a religious festival celebrated in Rome and the provinces.

The Festival of the Madmen in the Middle Ages can be traced back to Saturnalia.

Antoine-François Callet
Musée du Louvre, Paris, France, Agence photographique de la Réunion des musées nationaux
18th Century
Oil on canvas
© 1995, CHIN-Canadian Heritage Information Network. All Rights Reserved.


The cult of Mithras came from Persia and spread during the IIIrd and IVth centuries B.C. The cult has many similarities with Christian ceremonies and rites: baptism, communion wafer, and Sunday rest. On December 25, the sacrifice of a bull celebrated the Sol invictus (the invincible sun) and signalled the birth of a young sun god who sprang from a rock or a cave in the form of a newborn infant.
The cult of Mithras came from Persia and spread during the IIIrd and IVth centuries B.C. The cult has many similarities with Christian ceremonies and rites: baptism, communion wafer, and Sunday rest. On December 25, the sacrifice of a bull celebrated the Sol invictus (the invincible sun) and signalled the birth of a young sun god who sprang from a rock or a cave in the form of a newborn infant.

© 1995, CHIN-Canadian Heritage Information Network. All Rights Reserved.

Mithra sacrifices a bull before the sun and the moon.

Mithra sacrifices a bull before the sun and the moon.

Musée du Louvre, Paris, France. Agence photographique de la réunion des musées nationaux

© 1995, CHIN-Canadian Heritage Information Network. All Rights Reserved.


The festival of the sigillaria, or terra-cotta seals was a pagan Roman holiday. At the end of the Saturnalia, Romans used to give gifts especially to children: rings, seals and tiny objects. This festival was the time for great feasts during which houses were decorated with green plants.
The festival of the sigillaria, or terra-cotta seals was a pagan Roman holiday. At the end of the Saturnalia, Romans used to give gifts especially to children: rings, seals and tiny objects. This festival was the time for great feasts during which houses were decorated with green plants.

© 1995, CHIN-Canadian Heritage Information Network. All Rights Reserved.

The winter solstice signals the arrival of a period of cold and heralds the start of difficult farming conditions. It also denotes a period of rebirth and renewal. The twelve days of Christmas and the signs of the zodiac are references to agrarian rituals.
The winter solstice signals the arrival of a period of cold and heralds the start of difficult farming conditions. It also denotes a period of rebirth and renewal. The twelve days of Christmas and the signs of the zodiac are references to agrarian rituals.

© 1995, CHIN-Canadian Heritage Information Network. All Rights Reserved.

The winter solstice signals the arrival of a period of of difficulties

The winter solstice signals the arrival of a period of cold and heralds the start of difficult farming conditions.

Pellerin, Épinal
Musée national des arts et traditions populaires. MNATP
19th Century
Coloured woodcut
© 1995, CHIN-Canadian Heritage Information Network. All Rights Reserved.


Learning Objectives

The learner will:
  • identify how people, events, and ideas of the past shape the present;
  • describe pre-Christian December festivals, using examples;
  • recognize how fine art provides information about historical social practices.

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