12/21/12 - saturnalia and christmas

In today's selection -- the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year that grew to significance throughout the world because of the uncertainty of living through the bleak winter, the desire to have days lengthen again, and the need for brightness against the encroaching gloom. Such famous archeological sites as Stonehenge and Newgrange were aligned to the winter solstice, and it there are many holidays that originated from or gravitated to this solstice day, including We Tripantu in Chile, the Zoroastrian Maidyarem in Iran, Dongzhi in Asia, Hanukkah in Judaism, Yule in ancient northern Europe, and Christmas in fourth century Rome. Another such famous celebration was Saturnalia in ancient Rome, which was ultimately subsumed by Christmas:

"It was a public holiday celebrated around December 25th in the family home. A time for feasting, goodwill, generosity to the poor, the exchange of gifts and the decoration of trees. But it wasn't Christmas. This was Saturnalia, the pagan Roman winter solstice festival. ...

"The first-century AD poet Gaius Valerius Catullus described Saturnalia as 'the best of times': dress codes were relaxed, small gifts such as dolls, candles and caged birds were exchanged. 

"Saturnalia saw the inversion of social roles. The wealthy were expected to pay the month's rent for those who couldn't afford it, masters and slaves to swap clothes. Family households threw dice to determine who would become the temporary Saturnalian monarch. The poet Lucian of Samosata (AD 120-180) has the god Cronos (Saturn) say in his poem, Saturnalia:

'During my week the serious is barred: no business allowed. Drinking and being drunk, noise and games of dice, appointing of kings and feasting of slaves, singing naked, clapping ... an occasional ducking of corked faces in icy water -- such are the functions over which I preside.'

"Saturnalia originated as a farmer's festival to mark the end of the autumn planting season in honour of Saturn (satus means sowing). Numerous archaeological sites from the Roman coastal province of Constantine, now in Algeria, demonstrate that the cult of Saturn survived there until the early third century AD.

"Saturnalia grew in duration and moved to progressively later dates under the Roman period. During the reign of the Emperor Augustus (63 BC-AD 14), it was a two-day affair starting on December 17th. By the time Lucian described the festivities, it was a seven-day event. Changes to the Roman calendar moved the climax of Saturnalia to December 25th, around the time of the date of the winter solstice."

Read the full article in History Today


Matt Salusbury


Did the Romans Invent Christmas?"


History Today


History Today Volume: 59 Issue: 12 2009
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