Saturnalia – The prequel to Christmas

It’s that festive time of year again! Did you know that Christmas is my favorite holiday? I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned it before.

I’m joking, of course, but in some of my past blog posts about the history of Christmas I have made several references to Saturnalia, a pagan holiday celebrated by the ancient Romans in December prior to the conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity. This year, I wanted to take a closer look at this ancient festival, and compare it to our modern holiday. Christmas may have borrowed many elements from the Romans, but the two holidays are not the same.

So, what was Saturnalia?

The ancient Romans had many gods and goddesses, and one of the most important in their pantheon was Saturn.

This guy.

He was the god of time, the god of rebirth, the god of wealth, the god of agriculture, and the god of liberty. His temple stood at the western end of the Roman Forum, and was used to store Rome’s vaults of gold and silver. The Romans conflated him with the Greek god Cronus, claiming he fled to Italy when Jupiter/Zeus overthrew him, and became the founder-ancestor of the Latin-speaking people in a prosperous “Golden Age”. His statue, we are told by ancient Roman sources, was hollow, and filled with olive oil. It also had a wool cloth wrapped around his feet that only came off during Saturnalia.

The holiday started on December 17 and lasted seven days. It made sense to celebrate the god of agriculture at this time, as it was at the end of the Italian sowing season and fell on the winter solstice, marking the transition of the seasons. However, the festival itself actually emphasized Saturn’s role as a symbol of liberty, as during the festival the traditional Roman social conventions and structures were deliberately broken down, and all slaves were “freed” for the week. Indeed, it was not uncommon for Roman slaveowners to pretend to be slaves and pretend their slaves were their “masters”. It was also during Saturnalia that restrictions on the freedom of speech in Rome were lifted and grievances people had could be aired.

How was Saturnalia celebrated?

First of all, everyone wore the Pileus, a hat that was traditionally worn by newly-freed slaves.

Y’know, if you colored it red and put a white ball at the top…

All businesses, schools, and courts were closed, and everyone participated in feasting, singing, drinking lots of wine, and partying. A “King of Saturnalia” was chosen, whose job it would be to make mischief and play pranks on everyone. Usually this person would be chosen at random when he found a coin hidden in a pastry. The whole city of Rome took on an atmosphere of chaotic revelry, not unlike our modern Mardi Gras celebrations.

Gambling was a big part of the celebration, with dice games being especially popular. And, of course, there were the gladiatorial games and public animal sacrifices made at the Temple of Saturn in honor of the pagan god.

Wait… what does any of this have to do with Christmas?

Well, for starters, Romans would hang wreaths and put out other greenery as decorations in their homes. Candles were also common, as a symbol of the “return of the light” after the solstice. Also, just as with our “Merry Christmas”, Romans had a special greeting for the festival: “Io, Saturnalia!”

The dead giveaway that Christmas celebrations borrowed some influences from Saturnalia, though, is in our practice of gift-giving. This was a HUGE part of Saturnalia – you were expected to give a gift to all of your family members, all of your friends and co-workers, and even passers-by on the street. Not only that, but giving someone a gift meant that person now had to give you a gift back, and Saturn help him if he gave you a gift of lesser value than yours!

Of course, with such high expectations, there were some “standard” gifts you could give to those people that you didn’t know what to get for them. Terracotta figurines were very common, as were small bags of special “Saturnalia nuts”.

Then there were a sort of Christmas-card-like tradition of writing special notes to people that you were close to. These notes were usually in the form of a poem, and would have a customized message for the recipient. Though, I imagine if the printing press had been invented, pre-made Saturnalia cards would probably have been popular.

Obviously, Saturnalia’s influence on our modern Christmas celebrations are very indirect. Christmas is a Christian holiday celebrating the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, while Saturnalia was a pagan holiday that was banned along with all other remnants of the ancient pagan religion in the 4th Century AD. However, almost all historians accept that the fact Christmas falls at roughly the same time of the year as Saturnalia and borrows a few of its traditions was a conscious attempt to help pagans who converted to Christianity ease into the transition.

Though, not too much. I don’t think many people associate Christmas with gambling or gladiatorial games, after all.

However you celebrate Christmas, I wish you a very Merry one this year!