Most towns in Europe have some form of Christmas decorations. Some even have parades or special events. But in the English town of Chester, things are a bit different.
Chester started as a Roman town. It was founded in 79 AD as a “castrum” or Roman fort with the name Deva Victrix by the Emperor Vespasian. It would go on to become one of the main Roman cities in Britain and, to this day, the town still hosts many Roman structures and artifacts. Granted, plenty of European cities share a similar heritage. But Chester takes it to the next level.
Every Christmas, the town’s streets are filled with the familiar sights of a Roman parade. In fact, the town recreates the sights, sounds and smells that would have marked Saturnalia in Deva Victrix.
Forget Christmas. Here’s Saturnalia
Saturnalia was an ancient Roman festival in honor of the deity Saturn, held around the Winter Solstice. It was one of the several pre-Christian celebrations around what we now call Christmas time. During Saturnalia, Romans celebrated Saturn, the Roman god of farming and harvest. This was one of the ancient empire’s most popular celebrations.
It involved gift giving, excessive eating and drinking, and a relaxation of the rules. If you think that’s similar to current Christmas, it’s not a coincidence: Christmas took a lot of customs from Saturnalia. It also involved a carnival atmosphere and continuous partying for around a week — and that’s what the town of Chester is going for.
“The Saturnalia parade joins forces with the Winter Watch parade taking the city from the 1400’s back to its Roman occupation in 47/48 AD,” the city’s municipality announced. The events will feature a Roman Legion parade. The legion will march through the city with flaming torches whilst the Emperor will make his speech to confirm Roman rule. He will say:
“Let none of you be mistaken, the Romans are still here, at certain times of the year you will see us marching once more through our fortress. Remember who and what I am. I am a sword that sings in the dark. I am the sound of a legion marching to war. I am the axe that thuds into your skull. I am accuser, judge and executioner. I am Imperator. I am a living God. I am Caesar. I am Rome.”
It’s a unique celebration that allows the town to keep in touch with its Roman roots, says Dr. Caroline Pudney, a senior archaeology lecturer at the University of Chester. She said that for Chester, keeping Saturnalia is about “maintaining a sense of tradition and bringing the past to life”.
“Soldiers here in Chester would likely have honoured the Saturnalia and particularly welcomed the fact that it would have afforded them some days off,” she said.
So, would you say ‘yes’ to bringing back the Roman heritage of Saturnalia or should we just stick to Christmas?
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