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The Saturnalia and Christmas


Saturnalia, the most popular of Roman festivals. Dedicated to the Roman god Saturn, the festival’s influence continues to be felt throughout the Western world.

Saturnalia was an ancient Roman festival in honor of the god Saturn, held on 17 December of the Julian calendar and later expanded with festivities through to 23 December.

The holiday was celebrated with a sacrifice at the Temple of Saturn, in the Roman Forum, and a public banquet, followed by private gift-giving, continual partying, and a carnival atmosphere that overturned Roman social norms: gambling was permitted, and masters provided table service for their slaves. The poet Catullus called it "the best of days".

The date has been connected with the winter sowing season, which in modern Italy varies from October to January. Remarkably like the Greek Kronia, it was the liveliest festival of the year.

All work and business were suspended. Slaves were given temporary freedom to say and do what they liked, and certain moral restrictions were eased. The streets were infected with a Mardi Gras madness; a mock king was chosen (Saturnalicius princeps); the seasonal greeting io Saturnalia was heard everywhere.

The closing days of the Saturnalia were known as Sigillaria, because of the custom of making, toward the end of the festival, presents of candles, wax models of fruit, and waxen statuettes which were fashioned by the sigillarii or manufacturers of small figures in wax and other media.

The cult statue of Saturn himself, traditionally bound at the feet with woolen bands, was untied, presumably to come out and join the fun.

The influence of the Saturnalia upon the celebrations of Christmas and the New Year has been direct.

The fact that Christmas was celebrated on the birthday of the unconquered sun (dies solis invicti nati) gave the season a solar background, connected with the kalends of January (January 1, the Roman New Year) when houses were decorated with greenery and lights, and presents were given to children and the poor.

Gift-giving
The Sigillaria on 19 December was a day of gift-giving. Because gifts of value would mark social status contrary to the spirit of the season, these were often the pottery or wax figurines called sigillaria made specially for the day, candles, or "gag gifts", of which Augustus was particularly fond. Children received toys as gifts.

In his many poems about the Saturnalia, Martial names both expensive and quite cheap gifts, including writing tablets, dice, knucklebones, moneyboxes, combs, toothpicks, a hat, a hunting knife, an axe, various lamps, balls, perfumes, pipes, a pig, a sausage, a parrot, tables, cups, spoons, items of clothing, statues, masks, books, and pets.

Gifts might be as costly as a slave or exotic animal, but Martial suggests that token gifts of low intrinsic value inversely measure the high quality of a friendship. Patrons or "bosses" might pass along a gratuity (sigillaricium) to their poorer clients or dependents to help them buy gifts. Some emperors were noted for their devoted observance of the Sigillaria.

In a practice that might be compared to modern greeting cards, verses sometimes accompanied the gifts. Martial has a collection of poems written as if to be attached to gifts. Catullus received a book of bad poems by "the worst poet of all time" as a joke from a friend.

Gift-giving was not confined to the day of the Sigillaria. In some households, guests and family members received gifts after the feast in which slaves had shared.

Theological and Philosophical Views

The Saturnalia reflects the contradictory nature of the deity Saturn himself.

As a deity of agricultural bounty, Saturn embodied prosperity and wealth in general. The name of his consort Ops meant "wealth, resources". Her festival, Opalia, was celebrated on 19 December.

The Temple of Saturn housed the state treasury (aerarium Saturni) and was the administrative headquarters of the quaestors, the public officials whose duties included oversight of the mint. It was among the oldest cult sites in Rome, and had been the location of "a very ancient" altar (ara) even before the building of the first temple in 497 BC.

The Romans regarded Saturn as the original and autochthonous ruler of the Capitolium, and the first king of Latium or even the whole of Italy.

At the same time, there was a tradition that Saturn had been an immigrant deity, received by Janus after he was usurped by his son Jupiter (Zeus) and expelled from Greece. His contradictions—a foreigner with one of Rome's oldest sanctuaries, and a god of liberation who is kept in fetters most of the year—indicate Saturn's capacity for obliterating social distinctions.

Munera

Saturn also had a less benevolent aspect. Another of his consorts was Lua, sometimes called Lua Saturni ("Saturn's Lua") and identified with Lua Mater, "Mother Destruction", a goddess in whose honor the weapons of enemies killed in war were burned, perhaps in expiation.

Saturn's chthonic nature connected him to the underworld and its ruler Dis Pater, the Roman equivalent of Greek Plouton (Pluto in Latin) who was also a god of hidden wealth. In sources of the third century AD and later, Saturn is recorded as receiving dead gladiators as offerings (munera) during or near the Saturnalia. These gladiator events, ten days in all throughout December, were presented mainly by the quaestors and sponsored with funds from the treasury of Saturn.

The practice of gladiator munera was criticized by Christian apologists as a form of human sacrifice. Although there is no evidence of this practice during the Republic, the offering of gladiators led to later theories that the primeval Saturn had demanded human victims.

Macrobius says that Dis Pater was placated with human heads and Saturn with sacrificial victims consisting of men (virorum victimis). During the visit of Hercules to Italy, the civilizing demigod insisted that the practice be halted and the ritual reinterpreted. Instead of heads to Dis Pater, the Romans were to offer effigies or masks (oscilla); a mask appears in the representation of Saturnalia in the Calendar of Filocalus.

Since the Greek word phota meant both vir (man) and lumina (lights), candles were a substitute offering to Saturn for the light of life. The figurines that were exchanged as gifts (sigillaria) may also have represented token substitutes.

Mithraic Mysteries

The Neoplatonic philosopher Porphyry took an allegorical view of the Saturnalia.

He saw the festival's theme of liberation and dissolution as representing the "freeing of souls into immortality"—an interpretation that Mithraists may also have followed, since they included many slaves and freedmen.

According to Porphyry, the Saturnalia occurred near the winter solstice because the sun enters Capricorn, the astrological house of Saturn, at that time.

In the Saturnalia of Macrobius, the proximity of the Saturnalia to the winter solstice leads to an exposition of solar monotheism, the belief that the Sun (Sol Invictus) ultimately encompasses all divinities as one.

Perceived relations among the Mithraic mysteries, the Dies Natalis Solis Invicti (the "Birthday of the Unconquered Sun") on December 23, and the Christian Nativity as celebrated on December 25 are a matter of long-standing and complex scholarly debate.

The Festival to Adam

The Mishna and Talmud (Avodah Zara 8a) describe a pagan festival called Saturna which occurs for eight days before the winter solstice. It is followed for eight days after the solstice with a festival called Kalenda culminating with the Kalends of January.

The Talmud ascribes the origins of this festival to Adam, who saw that the days were getting shorter and thought it was punishment for his sin. He was afraid that the world was returning to the chaos and emptiness that existed before creation. He sat and fasted for eight days.

Once he saw that the days were getting longer again he realized that this was the natural cycle of the world, so made eight days of celebration. The Talmud states that this festival was later turned into a pagan festival.

Saturnalia Today

As we can see, this ancient festival and it's practices can be tied into many of the practices people around the world celebrate during the Christmas and New Years season.

Unlike several Roman religious festivals which were particular to cult sites in the city, the prolonged seasonal celebration of Saturnalia at home could be held anywhere in the Empire.

Saturnalia continued as a secular celebration long after it was removed from the official calendar. As William Warde Fowler noted: "[Saturnalia] has left its traces and found its parallels in great numbers of medieval and modern customs, occurring about the time of the winter solstice."

Have you ever asked, why do so many non-Christian nations celebrate Christmas and New Years?

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