Christmas in the modern world is a time of revelry, eating and overindulgence of drink, the giving of presents, carol singing and much more. The Roman festival of Saturnalia is believed to have been a forerunner of the Christmas we know and celebrate today giving us many customs and traditions that we use and enjoy.
The Roman Festival of Saturnalia
An early forerunner to Christmas was the ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia. This festival was held in honour Saturn an agricultural deity who reigned during the Golden Age. This was a time of peace, when all was prosperous and plentiful. A time when people’s needs were met with out having to work and every one lived in a state of social equality with one another. The festival commenced on the 17th December to the 23rd of December. Saturnalia could be celebrated anywhere in the Roman Empire not just Rome.
Saturnalia was time of great feasting, making merry and revelry with copious amounts of drinking and over indulging in food. People went out in the streets singing from door to door. It was a time for the giving and receiving of presents. The revelry was supposed to reflect the conditions of the Golden Age.
During Saturnalia leaves and branches of evergreens were fashioned into wreathes and carried by priests in processions. Gambling and throwing dice, which in ancient Rome was discouraged became permitted for both masters and slaves over the duration of the festival.
Public buildings and squares were adorned with flowers and lit with candles. Candles may have represented the search for truth and knowledge and also the return of the sun after the winter solstice. In later times the 25th of December by the Julian calendar, Romans celebrated Dies Natalis of Sol Invictus, or the “Birthday of the Unconquerable Sun.”
Role reversal during Saturnalia
During Saturnalia roles were reversed between master and slave, with slave becoming the master and the master, the slave. Some reports from ancient sources say slaves and masters ate at the same table together. Other reports say the slaves ate first and others say that the masters served the slaves their food. No doubt it was the slaves who did the actual preparation and clearing up.
Slaves were also said to be allowed to show a certain amount of disrespect to their masters but in reality it was probably more of an act. This is because the role reversal was temporary, only lasting through Saturnalia so slaves still needed to be wary of upsetting their master too much.
Dressing for Saturnalia
As can be expected during important festivals people like to dress up and wear their best clothes and Romans were no different. During Saturnalia men set aside the toga, their usual garment, in favour of Greek styled clothing. They also wore a conical cap of felt called the pilleus, which was a token of a freedman. Even slaves were allowed to wear the pilleus during Saturnalia.
Giving presents during Saturnalia
December the 23rd was known as “The Sigillaria and on this day presents and gifts were given. Against the spirit of the season the value of gifts given and received was a sign of social status. These might be candles, items of pottery, wax figurines, writing tablets, combs, lamps and many other such articles. Sometimes bird or animals were given. The rich sometimes gave a slave or an exotic animal of some kind. Children were given toys.
The Lord of Misrule
The ruler of Saturnalia and the master of ceremonies was called Saturnalicius princeps and was chosen by lot. A similar figure is seen in medieval times presiding over the Feast of Fools and was known as the Lord of Misrule. He would issue absurd and whimsical commands which had to be obeyed, hence creating chaos and (mis)rule and an absurd world.
The influence of Saturnalia on Christmas today
Many historians and scholars see the festival of Saturnalia as being as one of the original sources of many of today’s Christmas practices. The giving of presents, carol singing, the lighting of candles and the use of evergreen plants for decorations all continue to this day. The practice of eating and drinking to excess and the carnival atmosphere that prevails over the season are reminiscent of the festival of Saturnalia.