I can’t think of a more appropriate way of making my first December post than by wishing everyone a happy Saturnalia! Before you give me the ‘ol one-raised-eyebrow treatment and find something less niche to fill your time with, keep reading for just a moment, I promise you will be smarter and more invested afterwards.
Happy Saturnalia everyone!! December 17th, the Ides of December + 2, marks the start of the week long Roman festival which was as popular to the Romans as Christmas is to us. Well, it was a week-ish. The holiday’s duration was flexible especially during the years surrounding the transition from the disaster which was the original Roman calendar over to the Julian calendar. Originally the festival was one day and then was it was in flux from seven days, to three, then up to five under Caligula. The seven day celebration meant that Saturnalia ended on December 23rd which launched perfectly into December 25th, a day dedicated to honour Saturn (Cronos in Greek mythology). This was a perfect cap to the whole celebration of Saturnalia which was also a celebration of Saturn, the god of seed and sowing. Since a farmer is to have finished planting his fields by this point, the origins of this holiday go back to honouring the god who would bring abundance from the seeds.
This holiday was by far the most popular amongst Romans, and that’s saying something considering how many holidays the Romans had (check it out: http://www.unrv.com/culture/roman-festivals.php). Saturnalia was SO popular in fact, that when Christianity began to really gain momentum in the Empire, Church leaders realized that they couldn’t simply deny their recent converts the ability to celebrate this pagan holiday. Instead, the Church did what the Church was so good at: they adapted the holiday for their own purposes and shifted the focus of the holiday away from the pagan god Saturn and turned the focus instead onto the birth of Christ; (this really proved which civilization the Church was raised up in, Rome was never so good at anything as taking other culture’s ideas and making them their own). Some scholars have linked December 25th with the birth of the popular god Mithras whose similarities to Jesus are striking, but this is not a universally held connection since Mithras’ own birthday is not fact1.
So what happened during Saturnalia? Besides delicious sweet poppy seed bread/cake being made, there was gift giving, candles were a popular gift, gambling was allowed in public, the traditional toga was given over to colourful robes, slaves were allowed to be served as equals at the dinner table, wear their master’s clothing, and in some cases, a complete role reversal was allowed to happen where slaves could give orders to the masters. As with any holiday the extent of the celebration varied between families, but one thing was held commonly to all, there was lots of drinking, eating, singing, and merry making which happened, and best of all, it was a statutory holiday!
So from myself to your family, I wish you a happy Saturnalia and lots of good food and drink to ring in the new year! Really, this is just the warm-up for Christmas!
And if you’re looking for a quick, but more sourced, run down on Saturnalia I would suggest here: http://penelope.uchicago.edu/~grout/encyclopaedia_romana/calendar/saturnalia.html
1 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mithras_in_comparison_with_other_belief_systems Mithraism and Christianity