I forgot to mark the start of Saturnalia this year. This Roman holiday was a time for feasting, goodwill, generosity to the poor, the exchange of gifts, and the decoration of trees. Sound familiar?
Saturnalia was the pagan Roman winter solstice festival and honoring of Saturn who controlled the sowing of the new season’s crops, but Romans also began to spend the holiday gambling, singing, playing music, feasting, socializing and giving each other gifts.
First-century poet Gaius Valerius Catullus described Saturnalia as “the best of times… dress codes were relaxed, small gifts such as dolls, candles and caged birds were exchanged.”
It’s not too late to do some Saturnalia celebrating as the holiday became a weeklong festival.
Saturnalia originated as a farmer’s festival to mark the end of the autumn planting season and to honor Saturn (satus means sowing) and the cult of Saturn survived until the early third century AD in some places. Wax taper candles called cerei were common gifts during Saturnalia, to signify light returning after the solstice.
During the reign of Emperor Augustus, it was a two-day celebration on December 17 and 18. By the time Lucian described the festivities, it was a seven-day event from December 17-25 and included the Winter Solstice. Changes to the Roman calendar moved the climax of Saturnalia to December 25. Is this where Christmas came from?
Christmas owes something to this ancient Roman holiday and pagan festival. As with Christmas, Saturnalia started as a religious holiday, honoring the god Saturn, but evolved (or devolved) into just an excuse for revelry with its religious origins mostly forgotten.
I will note that devout Christians and some Biblical scholars will say that Saturnalia has nothing to do with the birth of Christ. They would say that the nine months of Mary’s pregnancy following the Annunciation on March 25th would produce a December 25th date for the birth of Christ.
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