The ancient Romans had a winter solstice
celebration called the Saturnalia, which lasted from December 17 to 24.
This was followed by the Festival of Kalends on January 1.
The Saturnalia took its name from Saturn,
who was the Roman god of agriculture. His ancient reign was considered a
golden age for the Romans. At that time there was no crime or punishment,
no laws or judges, and no need for farming. But this Golden Age did not
last. Eventually the old god was deposed, but each year at the winter
solstice the people relived his happy reign. During the Saturnalia no war
was declared, no battles were fought, and nobody was sent to prison or
otherwise punished. Also schools, law courts and markets were
A Saturnalia King was chosen by lot to
preside over the eight day festival and to represent the old god. His word
was law and whatever nonsensical request he made was granted. Social rank
was turned upside down so that slaves became masters and masters became
slaves. Centuries later, this aspect of the Saturnalia would turn up again
in the person of the Lord of Misrule.
Many of our modern Christmas customs
evolved from the Saturnalia. For example, the Romans decorated their
houses and temples with various evergreens such as laurel, holly and ivy;
wreaths were hung and trees were decorated with small trinkets.
One important part of the festival was
the exchange of gifts. They were simple at first, such as horey, fruits,
cakes, coins or clay dolls, but they slowly grew more elaborate. The Greek
writer Libanius wrote of the season. “The impulse to spend seizes
everyone.” One of the most important presents that people exchanged were
candles, symbols of the new-born sun. Elaborate processions with singing
took place, using these candles.
Lavish holiday banquets featured such
delicacies as peacock eggs in pepper sauce and people greeted each other
with shouts of ‘Bona Saturnalia’, the equivalent of our ‘Merry
Christmas’. It was a joyous time of good will, peace and sharing.
Early Christians began adapting these old
customs and infusing them with new meaning. Even the old god Saturn who
came bearing gifts of food and wine was transformed into the new Christian
gift giver of St. Nicholas. Our present day Santa Claus is descended from
the old god Saturn.
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