Retro Baltimore

Remembering Saturnalia, the pagan precursor to Christmas

Plum pudding, banned by the puritanical Oliver Cromwell in 17th-century England, was a centerpiece of any Baltimore Christmas table. The Christmas tradition of holly harkens back to the ancient Roman feast of Saturnalia.

Every year around this time, there's an effort by some Christians to remind people that "Jesus is the reason for the season." But Christmas, in fact, has several pagan predecessors, as The Baltimore Sun has reminded readers throughout this paper's history. We'll obligingly continue the tradition here.

As an article in 1924 noted, "There is no historical evidence to prove that December 25 is really the birthday of Christ…" The date was likely chosen because it fell near the ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia, which saw a role reversal among members of different classes.


During Saturnalia, slaves were symbolically freed for the day; their masters served them dinner. Gifts were exchanged, holly hung, candles lit, and bands of carolers went singing around town. It was a raucous affair, and overindulgence in food and drink were the norm.

When the Roman Empire converted to Christianity, Saturnalia became a Christian holiday, one honoring the birth of Jesus. And ancient greetings of "io Saturnalia!" were replaced with "Merry Christmas."


The feast remained a day of decadence, with carolers dressing up in costume and demanding money from the wealthier classes. Over time, celebrants incorporated additional pagan yuletide traditions, such as mistletoe and the Christmas tree.

By the late 1800s, The Baltimore Sun reported that people had abandoned many Saturnalian features of Christmas celebrations, which had led to "so much abuses and so much debauchery." But some wildness persisted: the excessive food and drink, and popularity of noisemaking devices such as tin horns.

The Saturnalian tradition of social role-reversal, too, continued in various forms: charity for the poor and generosity toward one's social lessers. In 1905, The Sun reported that on Christmas, "Everybody throws aside restraint and determines to have a joyous holiday." Baltimoreans opened their homes to friends and neighbors all day long, offering drinks of eggnog and sustenance of turkey and boozy plum pudding.

The latter dish was a long centerpiece of any Baltimore Christmas table. But a few centuries earlier, the Puritan Oliver Cromwell had deemed plum pudding sufficiently pagan that he outlawed the treat, along with other Christmas celebrations like caroling.

The Puritans of New England took a similarly Scrooge-like stance. Instead of singing, eating and drinking, 17th-century Puritans in the New World would spend the day working, else face a fine.

Call it the original "war on Christmas."