Did ancient Roman Christians celebrate any Roman national holidays? Or were all their national holidays festivities which honored pagan gods?

  • 1
    When is this question referring to, the national holidays celebrated by Romans today, or in the 12th century, or during Jesus's lifetime, or …? Commented Nov 24, 2023 at 0:11
  • @RayButterworth in the early Church
    – Geremia
    Commented Nov 24, 2023 at 0:36
  • How early? During Jesus's life? During the Apostle's lives? During their followers' lives? Just before Constantine? During Constantine? After Constantine? etc.? A specific date would really help. Commented Nov 24, 2023 at 1:22
  • @RayButterworth From 33 A.D. until before Constantine.
    – Geremia
    Commented Nov 24, 2023 at 3:17
  • 2
    The idea of there being non-sectarian "civic holidays" is a uniquely American innovation. In every other culture, both past and those present resistant to American hegemony, holiday meant "holy day" so it was always connected to the practice of a specific religion.
    – Fomalhaut
    Commented Nov 25, 2023 at 1:55

1 Answer 1


Did Roman Christians celebrate any Roman national holidays?

The short answer is no.

Pagan celebrated Pagan rituals and festivities, while the Early Church Christians celebrated things related to Jesus Christ and the anniversaries of the Martyrs.

With a Pagan culture that took pleasure in killing the Early Church Christians and making them martyrs, the Christian faithful preferred to celebrate the anniversaries of Christian Martyrs as their entrance into eternal life. The Catholic Church refers to this as their birthday into eternal glory!

Take the example of St. Polycarp of Smyrna:

When the guards realized that the fire could neither burn nor touch the sacred flesh of Polycarp, one of them shoved a spear through the fire and pierced the body of Polycarp. Immediately, what looked like a dove flew upward followed by a rush of blood that was so great it put out the flames.

At this, we made to rush forward and save the body of Polycarp that we might give it a Christian burial; but, so great was the jealousy and envy of the crowd, and of the devil that possessed them, that they would not let us take the body until it had been burned completely. Still, we were able to retrieve his bones, which were to us more precious than jewels and finer than pure gold, and lay them to rest in a tomb. Each year, on the anniversary of his death — that is to say, of his new birth into glory — we gather by his tomb and celebrate his martyrdom. - The Martyrdom of Polycarp

Ah Rome! The city that saw the martyrdom of the two great Apostles Peter and Paul in 64 AD. Christians were burned alive under Nero, eaten by dogs, and even crucified! What would you think? It is obvious Christians did not take part in Roman Holidays. They were Christians, not Pagans...

Pope Gregory the Great in the year 601, urged the faithful to turn pagan temples into churches and to replace pagan festivals into feasts celebrating Christian martyrs. This tradition of honouring Christian martyrs continues to this day.

St. Augustine was dead against encouraging the faithful to attend the Roman Gladiatorial Games. In those same arenas Christians were fed to wild animals!

In Augustine’s Confessions, the saint writes an account that involves one of his closest friends, Alypius. Augustine shares the story of how his friend is introduced to the gladiator games, and how he becomes addicted to this blood sport. . . . However, Augustine also foreshadows how God would deliver his friend from his addiction. And not only did Alypius convert, but he also became a bishop of the church.

This testimony is powerful to me for two reasons. The first is because it shows the power of salvation. Alypius was a gladiator fan. He found pleasure in watching other men fight, wound, and kill each other. The gore and violence of this sport delighted him. Death brought Alypius earthly joy. Nevertheless, even though he cheered for death, as he watched men destroy those made in God’s image, the blood of Christ forgave him. The blood of Christ is greater than any sin. Powerful enough to take a former gladiator fan and give him a place in the church - wow!

Secondly, this testimony shows that there is hope for those trapped in addiction. Shopping, social media, alcohol, porn, drugs–no matter what your addiction is, there is hope for you. God still loves you. - Augustine and Gladiators

But what about Christmas?

Origen makes it quite clear that only pagans celebrated birthdays.

Unlike Easter, which developed as a Christian holiday much earlier, there is no mention of birth celebrations from the earliest church fathers. Christian writers like Irenaeus (130-200) and Tertullian (160-225) say nothing about a festival in honor of Christ’s birth, and Origen (165-264) even mocks Roman celebrations of birth anniversaries as pagan practices. This is a pretty good indication that Christmas was not yet on the ecclesiastical calendar (or at least not widespread), and that if it were, it would not have been tied to a similar Roman holiday.

This does not mean, however, that no one was interested in the date of Christ’s birth. By the late second century, there was considerable interest in dating the birth of Jesus, with Clement of Alexandria (150-215) noting several different proposals, none of which was December 25. The first mention of December 25 as Jesus’s birthday comes from a mid-fourth-century almanac called the Philocalian Calendar. A few decades later, around AD 400, Augustine would indicate that the Donatists kept Christmas festivals on December 25 but refused to celebrate Epiphany on January 6 because they thought the later date was a recent invention. Since the Donatists, who arose during the persecution under Diocletian in 312, were stubbornly opposed to any compromise with their Roman oppressors, we can be quite certain they did not consider the celebration of Christmas, or the date of December 25, to be pagan in origin. McGowan concludes that there must have been an older North African tradition that the Donatists were steeped in and, therefore, the earliest celebrations of Christmas (we know about) can be dated to the second half of the third century. This is well before Constantine and during a time period when Christians were trying to steadfastly avoid any connections to pagan religion.

Around AD 200, Tertullian of Carthage noted that Jesus died on the 14th day of Nisan, which was equivalent to March 25 in the Roman solar calendar. In the East, they made their calculation using the 14th day of the first spring month in their local Greek calendar. In the Roman calendar, this was April 6. So depending on who you asked, Jesus died on either March 25 or April 6.

In both the West and the East, there developed the same tradition that Jesus died on the same date he was conceived. An anonymous Christian treatise from fourth-century North Africa stated that March 25 was “the day of the passion of the Lord and of his conception. For on that day he was conceived on the same he suffered.” Augustine in On the Trinity mentioned that same calculation. Similarly, in the East, the fourth-century bishop Epiphanius of Salamis maintained that on April 6 Christ took away the sins of the world and on the same date was “shut up in the spotless womb of the holy virgin.” The fact that this curious tradition existed in two different parts of the world suggests it may have been rooted in more than mere speculation. If nothing else, as McGowan observes, these early Christians were borrowing from an ancient Jewish tradition that said that the most important events of creation and redemption occurred at the same time of the year.

From the date of Christ’s death, to the (same) date of his conception, we can easily see where the date of Christmas could have come from. If Jesus was conceived on March 25, then the best date to celebrate his birth must be nine months later on December 25 (or, in the East, January 6). While we can’t know for certain that this is where December 25 came from—and we certainly can’t be dogmatic about the historicity of the date—there is much better ancient evidence to suggest that our date for Christmas is tied to Christ’s death and conception than tied to the pagan celebrations of Saturnalia and Sol Invictus. - Is Christmas a Pagan Rip-off?

The following articles may be of interest to some:

According to Pope Benedict XVI, the first person to clearly assign Christmas to its current feast day was St. Hippolytus of Rome.5 In his Commentary on Dan­iel, which was written c. 204 a.d., St. Hippolytus wrote: “For the first advent of our Lord in the flesh, when he was born in Bethlehem, was December 25th, a Wednesday, while Augustus was in his forty-second year, but from Adam, five thousand and five hundred years.”6 Writing roughly 150 years before any known records which designate December 25th as Natalis Invicti, Hippolytus gives no mention of the Roman feast.

When someone says that Mithras was also born on December 25th, ask them which scholar they are referring to when they say that. Which historian or theologian can validate that fact? As the historian Tom Holland points out:

“There is no evidence — absolutely none — that the birth of Mithras was celebrated on 25 December. The confusion seems to have arisen because Mithras had Sol Invictus, ‘Unconquered Sun,’ as one of his titles, and — according to an ambiguous entry in a mid - 4th century almanac — the birthday of a quite different god called Sol Invictus may have been celebrated on the same date.”

Saturnalia, likewise, was celebrated sometime between December 17th and 23rd. It’s celebration was also utterly different from Christianity.

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