Pre-Christian Cults in the Ancient World

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.


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.

The Cult of Mithras

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, 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 Festival of the Sigillaria

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.