Monday, December 23, 2013

Io Saturnalia!

We think of Christmas as a very Christian festival, but many of its associated rituals and practices come from a much more Pagan time and it is no coincidence that the birth of Christ is celebrated very close to the Winter Solstice. As we charge into the usual orgy of gift-giving and feasting that has come to symbolize the holidays, I want to take a moment to reflect upon one origin for these activities.

Saturn Cutting off Cupid’s Wings with
a Scythe 
(1802) by Ivan Akimov
Roman festivals were usually tied to the annual cycle of agricultural events and Saturnalia is no exception. It celebrates the god Saturn and coincides with the period of the year, around the Winter Solstice, used to sow the new crops. Saturn is often associated with both agriculture and the passage of time and is traditionally depicted as carrying a sickle or scythe, so his festival marks the death of the old year and the birth of the new. He is derived from the Greek god Cronus, god of Time, and continues to the present day in the form of Father Time.

Saturnalia would begin officially on December 17 when a public sacrifice would be held in the Temple of Saturn in the Roman Forum. The god’s statue would have the wool bindings removed from its feet for the ceremony before the priest offered a sacrifice. He would do this with his head uncovered, which was very unusual but is consistent with Greek ritual and is only one of the many contradictions that the Saturnalia shows. After the sacrifice, the statue was carried out into the forum and draped with a red cloak before taking part in various processions and public banquets. At the end of the day, the statue would be returned to its sanctuary and have its feet rebound until the next year.

Further festivals continued in private residences for two more days in the time of Julius Caesar, but later the reveling continued for a total of seven days. This was not universally appreciated as it made some grow weary of the endless festivities and rowdy populace. Seneca complains that it now feels as if December lasts for the whole year (Seneca, Letters 18.1). As Christmas seems to begin earlier and earlier each year, I can understand his sentiments exactly!

Dice players from a wall in Pompeii
The closure of businesses, schools and courts were no doubt a welcome relief to many, but this did allow the people a free reign to behave as badly as they desired. The social distinctions between citizens and slaves were forgotten and even women were allowed to mix with their male family members. As part of this tradition, many people wore disguises or masks and the slaves would be served by their masters for at least one feast. Gambling was allowed rather than prohibited and dice games were especially popular, but the main activities were eating and drinking to excess. Whilst such debauchery was wildly popular, not everyone felt the need to over-indulge, and Pliny writes of his preference for withdrawing to his rooms so that he can get some peace and quiet whilst everyone else has a good time (Pliny, Letters 2.17.24).

Finally, on December 23, gifts were exchanged. These could be small wax or pottery figurines, candles, or many other useful items, although gifts could be very costly indeed if one had the appropriate level of wealth. Suetonius reports that the Emperor Augustus had a particular liking for trivial and silly present (Suetonius, Life of Augustus) so perhaps he would have appreciated those really, really bad sweaters that appear at this time of the year.

It is a testament to the adaptability of the Romans and their ability to absorb new religions without really changing their traditions that so many of these activities have survived until the present day. So, perhaps we should still be calling “Io Saturnalia!” instead of “Happy Holidays!”.

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