The Roman festival Saturnalia was a long-lasting pagan celebration of Saturn held during the winter solstice. Much of what occurred during these festivities have had a significant effect on winter holiday celebrations that carry on even in the modern day. I have chosen this topic as I believe it is highly important to know where traditions come from and why we continue to use them today. So what happened during Saturnalia? And what does this have to do with what people do during the Christmas season?
In this essay, I will be explaining and answering these questions. The source I found which best describes the originating details and events that occurred was Mark Cartwright’s “Saturnalia” article. Just like the title suggests, the article addresses the subject of Saturnalia and events thereof. Mr. Cartwright is a publishing director at ancient.eu and specializes as a history writer based in Italy. The website itself has received much praise from several education organizations as well as receiving an award. All articles and information are checked for accuracy by editors and publishers before posting.
There are several sources for this paper that include books from Oxford and certain sources that are esteemed in the field. This source is clearly reliable and very well written. The second source was featured in BBC’s History Magazine and on History Extra. BBC History Magazine is the highest selling magazine in the world and edited by Greg Neale, a history graduate and journalist with high experience.
History Extra’s “How did the Romans celebrate ‘Christmas’?” is published by Immediate Media Company, a revered publishing house with several well known magazines and has won several awards, including but not limited to, the British Media Award and 2015 Media Company of the Year Award. This article goes into how the pagan holiday traditions of Saturnalia developed into the traditions of today as well as other minor details not quite covered in the first article. The article also cites several sources within the article including the Roman historian Livy himself. Cartwright states how Saturnalia was held for almost a week during the winter solstice despite efforts from Augustus to shorten it.
The symbolic meaning of the Saturnalia was liberation and a celebration of agriculture which comes through strongly during the festival. There was also symbolism in the clothes they wore, mainly the “cap of freedom” (HistoryExtra) or pilleum that people would wear when it was normally only worn by freed slaves. Within the temple of Saturn was a statue which feet were bound year-round with the exception of the period of Saturnalia, symbolizing the letting loose of the people. During Saturnalia some hardcore partying went on for the duration of the solstice; there was gambling, public drunkenness, singing, noise making, games, casual clothes to the point of nakedness, feasts, and even “light-hearted mischief” (Cartwright). Speaking of mischief, during the festivities one of the lowliest members of the household became the ‘Lord of Misrule’ and was incharge of managing the mischief.
Even slaves were allowed to participate and would even “wait on their slaves (or at least eat together in the same room)” (Cartwright). Gift-giving (traditionally candles, jellied figs, or small figurines) signified the end of these festivities and even dependents were given money “so that they could buy the cheap goods on offer” (Cartwright) to give as well. How did these events become traditions during Christmas? After all, “the early Christian authorities objected to the festivities” (HistoryExtra).
When the Christian Church decided, mistakenly, that the birth of Jesus was on December 25th, they wanted it to be seperate from saturnalia and be a reverent holiday, so they tried to get rid of and banish the festivities all together. Needless to say, it didn’t work. People liked the festivities so much that they refused to quit.
So instead, many events involved in these festivities became a part of the Christmas holiday was a way of compromise (but really the church couldn’t do anything about it). In denouement, most of the traditions we celebrate during the holiday season today are really pagan celebrations that the church couldn’t get rid of no matter how much they tried. It is impossible to take away what people love if they love it enough, no matter how unruly it may be.
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