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By Alex Keyes
Picture with thanks from Wikipedia
How did people celebrate Christmas in ancient Rome? The simple answer is they didn’t. Early Christians couldn’t agree on the day Jesus was born and showed very little desire to celebrate it as a festival. It was not until around the year 350 AD that the 25th of December was widely accepted as Jesus’ birthday, and even then it was often overshadowed by the feast of the epiphany on the sixth of January. It is probable that the first Christians were a little embarrassed that Jesus had a birthday at all. The church father Origen points out that only villains in the Bible, such Pharaoh and Herod celebrate birthday parties, while the Christian writer Arnobius mocked Pagans for celebrating the birthdays of gods. For Romans prior to the wide scale adoption of Christianity, the big event in December was Saturnalia.
Saturnalia was originally a one-day festival in honour of the god Saturn which took place on the 17th of December and marked the end of autumn sowing. For the party loving Romans however, one day was not enough. By the first century AD it had grown into a seven-day festival, though it was trimmed back to three days by the parsimonious Emperor Augustus. According to the writer Seneca it was the time of year “when all Rome went mad”. The festival began with a public sacrifice to Saturn, after which wealthy Romans discarded their togas and donned the type of tunics normally worn by the poor. Roles were reversed with slaves becoming the masters for a day and being waited on by their owners. A more familiar custom was gift giving; however rather than giving presents to their family, wealthy Romans were expected to distribute gifts to their poorer friends and neighbours. It was this practise which led the poet Martial to pen the line “The only wealth you keep forever is that which you give away”, however it should be noted that before writing this he spent several lines lamenting that he didn’t receive the dried damsons, new napkins and silver dishes that he had asked for. Other popular holiday activities included dice games (perhaps a precursor to monopoly), decorating homes and public places with wreaths and candles.
Rather than a turkey the centre of a Saturnalia feast was normally a roast pig sacrificed by the father of the family. This was accompanied by several festive treats we might recognise, including dates and oranges, and few which may appear to us a little strange such as spiced dormice. The food was accompanied by considerable quantities of alcohol in the form of wine and beer, which led into a rather bizarre (and perhaps more fun) form of carol singing where intoxicated revellers would traipse from house to house naked singing songs. Saturnalia even came with its very own Scrooge in the form of the politician and author Pliny the younger, who looked down on the unrestrained partying and was exceptionally proud of fact that he worked through the holiday in a quiet area of his villa. However unlike Scrooge he was generous enough to give his employees time off to participate.
While modern Christmas celebrations did not directly develop out of Saturnalia, we can see the origin of many contemporary customs in the ancient festival. So this year why not wish your family, friends and family a ‘lo Saturnalia!’
© Alex Keyes 2016
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