The festive season of December, marked by the celebration of Christmas, is celebrated by billions of people all around the world. We engage in the merry custom of giving gifts to our loved ones, we congregate around the house, typically at a table with our family members, and we put up festive wreaths and Christmas trees.
This celebratory story unfolds each year, like a staple on the calendar of every family’s customs. But did you know that the tale of Christmas probably goes back to the ancient city of Rome?
Yep, without the Saturnalia festivities in ancient Rome, Christmas as we know it would look very different nowadays, or perhaps wouldn’t exist at all. Here’s why.
What is Saturnalia?
Saturnalia, an ancient Roman festival, was initially celebrated on December 17. It honored Saturn, the Roman god of agriculture and time. It gradually evolved into a week-long festive celebration.
Saturnalia was marked by an array of rituals and traditions. Sacrifices were made at the Temple of Saturn, followed by public banquets that fostered a sense of community within the city’s households.
Saturnalia was rooted in the Greek celebration of Kronia and was essentially a winter solstice celebration. The collective merriment often veered away from the rigidity of law and order during Saturnalia. Activities like gambling and dice-playing, normally prohibited and frowned upon in Roman law, were permitted for all, even slaves. They usually played for nuts or coins. Lavish banquets were thrown and everyone, including slaves or other people who would normally be banned from such gatherings, could feast.
Gift-giving morphed into a central part of the celebration, a tradition that resonates with our modern holiday traditions. One of the most notable aspects of Saturnalia was the temporary subversion of social norms. In this period, slaves and masters in Roman households would exchange roles, symbolizing a brief break from the law of the land and embodying a sense of freedom and equality. This was in stark contrast to the standard structure of the Roman Republic. Decorations played a vital role, with homes adorned with wreaths, candles, and sigillaria (small clay figurines).
It was a merry time for everyone, from the emperor of Rome to the common man. But it wasn’t Christmas.
How Saturnalia influenced Christmas
The influence of Saturnalia on Roman culture was significant, contributing to the social fabric of the era. It also shared links with other Roman and pagan festivals, showcasing the interconnectedness of ancient traditions. So when Christianity began to spread throughout the Roman Empire, it encountered a variety of pagan traditions and festivals, including Saturnalia.
The early Christian Church faced the challenge of converting pagans to Christianity. One strategic approach was to superimpose Christian holidays over existing pagan festivals. This method not only proved practical in terms of encouraging conversion but also eased the transition for converts who had grown accustomed to their traditional festivals.
Various theories suggest that this date was selected partly because of its alignment with Saturnalia and the winter solstice. This timing made it more acceptable and familiar to Roman pagans who were used to celebrating around this time on their calendar.
One other prevalent theory is that December 25 was chosen to counter the pagan festivities of Saturnalia and the birthday of the sun god, Sol Invictus (the “Unconquered Sun”), which was also celebrated around the winter solstice. By assigning this date to Jesus’ birth, the Church provided a Christian alternative to popular pagan celebrations.
A gradual transition from Saturnalia to Christmas
This transition from Saturnalia to Christmas did not happen overnight. It was a gradual process of cultural adaptation and syncretism, where Christian and pagan traditions blended. As Christianity spread throughout Europe and became a dominant religion, these adapted traditions evolved further, influenced by local customs and practices. The popularity of Christmas increased. More and more families started following this religious celebration. But some customs remained.
The modern household of today may not necessarily throw a banquet as part of “merry Christmas” celebrations, but the idea of a feast with family, friends, and guests still endures. We’ve replaced Roman and Greek gods with the Christian god, the Roman rites with going to churches, but the core sentiment is the same. The narrative of Christmas, with its rich and varied history, showcases the inevitable intermingling of old customs with the new.
While Saturnalia has left an indelible mark on the practices and customs of Christmas, the two festivals both reflect the values and beliefs of their respective times.
So remember this history lesson when you sit down at your Christmas table this year, looking at the twinkling lights on your Christmas tree and sharing gifts with loved ones, knowing that you are participating in a story that stretches back thousands of years to the beating heart of the ancient Roman republic.
Christmas didn’t only take from Saturnalia. Christmas is a synthesis of several different celebrations, including Yule and other Druidic practices. The idea of having a Christmas tree, wreaths, and other greenery comes from Norse and Germanic folklore. Caroling comes from pagan songs, for instance.
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