The Grammarphobia Blog

A brief history of Father Time

Q: A retired friend of mine is trying to find out where the term “Father Time” originated from. Do you have any leads on this?

A: The Greek god Cronus, known to the Romans as Saturn, god of agriculture, is thought to be the source of the image of the bearded, scythe-carrying old man known as Father Time. Saturn is typically associated with the sowing of seeds and the tilling of the soil.

The ancient Romans celebrated Saturnalia, a week-long harvest festival in December, to honor Saturn, and it’s likely that the festival influenced Christian tradition. In A.D. 354, when Pope Liberius ordered that Dec. 25 be observed as the birthday of Christ, he cited the precedent of Saturnalia, probably hoping the new holiday would divert attention from the pagan revelry. That’s why the images of Father Time and Father Christmas, and the passing of the old year and the coming of the new have all come to be associated with one another over the centuries.

Scholars now believe that the name Cronus is actually pre-Greek and is not etymologically related to chronos, one of several Greek words for time. But the confusion between Cronus and chronos has probably reinforced the scythe-wielding Father Time image.