Ancient Roman Christmas

The Saturnalia was one of the most popular festivals in Ancient Rome, possibly going back to Etruscan times. A sacrifice of piglets was made to the god Saturn along with other rites, and there followed several days of feasting and fun. It was the custom to greet one another with the phrase Io Saturnalia!

I. WINTER SOLSTICE – The Saturnalia began on December 17, a few days before the winter solstice. The Saturnalia was essentially a pagan festival to bring back the sun. And some Romans celebrated the birth of a new god from the Middle East at this time.

II. BIRTH OF A GOD – In the early centuries of our era, the worship of Mithras – a ‘new’ eastern religion – shared many similarities with Christianity. There was a baptism, a sacramental meal celebrating the resurrection of the god, an observance of Sunday, and the god himself was born on the 25th of December. (It wasn’t until about AD 400 that church leaders decided to celebrate the birth of Jesus on December 25th in an attempt to overlay and obliterate the birthday of Mithras.)

III. GREENERY – Around mid-winter, the Romans decorated their houses with greenery. This was a common act of sympathetic magic used in many so-called ‘pagan’ societies. That’s certainly where our custom of Christmas wreaths and mistletoe come from.

 IV. LIGHTS – Romans also decorated their houses with extra lights at this darkest time of the year. Again, this was a primitive attempt to coax back the sun. Torches, tapers, candleabra and oil-lamps flickered in the houses of those who could afford them.

V. FEASTING. In mid-winter, instinct tells us to build up a nice layer of fat, to feast in preparation for lean times ahead, like bears before they hibernate. The Romans were no different from us in this respect… except that they had no chocolate!

VI. BOOZE. It has been medically proven that a small amount of wine added to water will kill off most known bacteria. For most of the year Romans drank diluted wine, but during the Saturnalia they often drank neat wine, heated and spiced. Mulled wine, anyone?

VII. CELEBRATION (and role reversal, too.) For the five days of the Saturnalia, slaves didn’t have to work. They could eat, drink and be merry, and some even switched places with their masters, especially in more relaxed homes. In theory the masters would wait on reclining slaves and the slaves could tell the masters what they thought of them. Most masters probably just left the slaves to themselves, like Pliny the Younger, who retreated to an annex of his seaside Laurentum Villa and let his slaves get on with carousing. During the Saturnalia, children were allowed into the amphitheatre. There was also music, dancing and pantomime (though not our kind of pantomime).

VIII. GAMBLING. In first century Rome, gambling was illegal… except during the Saturnalia. For those few days in mid-winter, anyone could gamble: children and slaves included. Children usually gambled with nuts. In Italy and some other Mediterranean countries this practice lives on in the seasonal Tombola and Bingo games, only held at this time of year.

IX. CONICAL FELT HATS. During the festival men (and sometimes women) wore a type of conical felt cap called the pilleum (also spelled pilleus). These hats were traditionally worn by slaves who had been set free. This showed that people were ‘free’ from the usual restrictions and laws. “Freedom has loosed the bonds for all…” said one Roman author about the Saturnalia. Imagine a conical, red pilleum trimmed with white fur… and you get Santa’s hat!

X. KING OF THE SATURNALIA. On the first night of the festival in some families, the paterfamilias threw dice to determine who in the household would be the King of the Saturnalia. The ‘King’ could then command people to do things, eg prepare a banquet, sing a song, run an errand. During his reign, the depraved Emperor Nero used shaved dice to ensure that he would be chosen King of the Saturnalia even though he was already the most powerful man in the known world. (Big bully.) I wonder if the paper crowns in Christmas crackers hearken back to this tradition?

XI. GIFTS. Just like us, the Romans gave gifts on the Saturnalia: traditionally candles, silver objects, preserved fruit and especially sigilla: small clay or wooden figures, often with moveable joints. (I guess Barbie dolls and boys’ action figures are the modern equivalent.) But the ancient Romans gave gifts of every value and size, from something as small as a toothpick to something as big as a slave. The Saturnalia was traditionally a time of commercialism and shopping. The first century philosopher Seneca grumbled about the shopping season: “Decembris used to be a month; now it’s a whole year.” Plus ça change…!

XII. MOTTOES. In Roman times they didn’t just stick tags on their presents, they often composed two-lined poems to accompany their Saturnalia gift. These epigrams didn’t have to rhyme; they were in metre. Sometimes they were funny, sometimes in the form of a riddle, sometimes just descriptive. In Holland, people still compose poems to go with their presents.

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by Caroline Lawrence
The Twelve Tasks of Flavia Gemina is the perfect Saturnalia gift for a history-loving boy or girl. You can also buy both seasons of the BBC television adaptation of the Roman Mysteries books, including the Saturnalia episode, renamed “The Trials of Flavia”. And keep an eye out for Roman Mystery Scroll 3 early in 2013; it will feature dancing Saturnalia chickens!

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