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Saturnalia vs Christmas - by Valentino Gargano

This article is running in parallel with the Academus Saturnalia Fundraiser; the quiz will be taking place on the 1st December, 7:30pm. Tickets cost £3 and can be purchased here.

It is difficult to imagine ancient Romans merrily exchanging presents like we do at Christmas, but something along these lines really used to happen in Republican and Imperial Rome - albeit for the festival of Saturnalia. In the intricate and complex calendar of Roman festivals, Saturnalia occupied a paramount role which provides us with an easy parallel to our modern understanding of Christmas. Let us now see what Saturnalia was, and why it was so similar to Christmas.

The Date

The Romans had a detailed calendar which involved frequent feriae (‘festivals’ or ‘holidays’) throughout the whole year. While it is evident that some of these were not always commemorated, the Saturnalia was celebrated every year, and it was felt to be so important that it lasted around five to seven days. The first day was the 17th of December on the Julian Calendar (the calendar reformed by Julius Caesar), and it lasted until the 23rd of December. The proximity of Saturnalia and Christmas in time is the first point of contact between the two. Their closeness to the winter solstice, naturally, has been interpreted in many ways. Candles were extensively used during Saturnalia, and still today Christmas lights shine in our cities, arguably to signal the return of the light after the solstice.

The Importance of Family

The Roman Saturnalia was as much a public holiday as it was a private celebration among family, in a similar manner to Christmas. Initially, the Saturnalia began with a public sacrifice in the temple of Saturn in the Forum and a public banquet; the celebrations were brought home after that. Since the Saturnalia was celebrated most years, it became a festival with a typically familiar dimension - something that is still today found in Christmas.

A painting depicting saturnalia celebrations
Saturnalia celebrations

The Tradition of Gift-giving

The day designated for gift-giving was the Sigillaria, on the 19th December. We have records of a variety of presents exchanged between Romans on this day, from dinner napkins to exotic animals or even slaves. We can imagine Catullus on that day receiving a book as a gift from his friend Calvus - as he describes in poem 14 of his collection - and reacting with disgust and disappointment:

‘Oh, greatest gods! What a horrible and monstrous little book!’ he tells Calvus. ‘Surely you sent this to your Catullus to let him die immediately, and on the very day of the Saturnalia, the best of all days!’ (Catullus 14.12-15. Translated by the author.)

The Worship of Saturn

The first difference between Christmas and Saturnalia is clearly the divinity which is being worshipped. Saturnalia celebrated the rule of Saturn, the father of Jupiter, who was imagined to have reigned in a mythic time of infinite pleasure, peace, and harmony for mankind: ‘The Golden Age’. This mythical period had an incredible influence on Latin Literature; authors such as Vergil and Ovid included descriptions in their works envisioning the legendary kingdom of Saturn. This leads us to the major difference between Saturnalia and Christmas.

Painting depicting the 'Golden Age' of man
'The Golden Age' of mankind

From Slaves to Masters

One of the main features of Saturnalia was the substantial inversion of social roles. Justinus and Macrobius are particularly informative in this area; they explain this very un-Roman custom by connecting it with the myth of the Golden Age:

‘The period of his [Saturn’s] reign is said to have been immensely happy, not only on account of general abundance but also because no one was yet distinguished by servitude or freedom which one can discern because complete license is granted to slaves on the Saturnalia.’ (Macrobius, Saturnalia 1.7.26. Translated by Dolansky, 2011)

The very carnivalesque aspect of the celebrations meant that slaves became masters and masters became slaves. Seneca, a famous philosopher who lived during the early Empire, wrote in his influential 47th letter that masters and slaves dined together during the Saturnalia (feasting for apparently two or three days) and endorsed this habit by suggesting this should be expanded to the other days of the year, too. We even know from Horace and Martial that slaves could rebuke their masters during the Saturnalia with apparent impunity - something that no Roman slave would have ever dared to do under different circumstances.

A painting depicting Saturnalia celebrations
Saturnalia Celebrations

The King of the Saturnalia

One final peculiarity of the celebrations was the election of a Saturnalicius princeps (‘King of the Saturnalia’) who ruled over the private ceremonies and often played with his fictitious subjects by telling them to do very embarrassing and ridiculous things. Emperor Nero himself is said to have once played the role (Tacitus, Annales 13.15).

Despite the carnivalesque aspects of the festival, the Saturnalia did indeed have much in common with our understanding of Christmas. We cannot really be certain about why this is the case; since the actual date of Jesus’ birth is unknown, Pope Julius I may have decided to adopt the canonical date of the 25th December in accordance with either the Saturnalia or the birthdate of Sol Invictus, a sun god. We can be sure, however, that some of the features of Saturnalia passed over to Christmas and are still now preserved in our celebrations.

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