“But you, Saturn, cast off your fetters and come near. You, too, December, tipsy from so much wine, and laughing Good Cheer and wanton Joviality, come and be present.”
In the cold dark days around the winter solstice, when the sun stops traveling away from us and begins its return, we have always chosen to make merry. We have brought light to the darkness by giving gifts, spending time with family and friends, being kind to those less fortunate, and by overindulging. Long before Christmas these traditions began.
December 17 was the festival day of Saturnalia for the ancient Romans. In the early days, when Rome was just a small city-state, they celebrated with a free public banquet followed by a religious ceremony at the temple of Saturn in the forum. Generosity and gift-giving extended even to slaves, as Cato the Elder, in the second century BC, prescribed just how much extra wine to give to slaves – almost twice as much as usual.
Saturnalia was the celebration in honour of Saturn, the Roman god of agriculture and seed sowing. Saturn was equated with the Greek god, Cronus, the father of Zeus. Cronus, himself was often depicted as an old man with a beard and a scythe, much like our Father Time. But I wonder if somewhere along the way he might have met up with Saint Nicholas and morphed into Santa as well.
As the Roman Empire spread throughout Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, their Saturnalia traditions spread too. But even over thousands of years and the advent of Christianity, which absorbed a lot of Roman traditions, we can still see many vestiges of Roman customs and symbols in our own modern winter solstice celebrations.
Romans greeted each other with “Io Saturnalia” on the day. Businesses and stores closed. Often slaves were given a day off and there was a tradition of role-reversal, when masters would serve their slaves and give them gifts. Everyone wore freedman caps (felt hats given to slaves when they were freed), to show the freedom of the festivity and to represent equality, even if it was only for one day a year.
Gifts were given to friends and family, sometimes by lot (something like secret Santa exchanges). Beeswax candles were popular gifts. In the late first century AD, Martial wrote about Saturnalia gift-giving in his Epigrams.
“At this time of year, when the equestrians and senators show off their party clothes, and even the emperor wears a freedman’s cap, and the home-bred slave is not afraid to look straight at the aedile and shake the dice box (even though he sees the icy tanks so nearby), accept the gift you have drawn, whether from a poor or a rich man. Let everyone give his guest an appropriate gift.
“Accept this parasol which can block even the intense sunlight. Even when it is windy, you will by protected by your own awning. This pig will make your Saturnalia merry. He was fed acorns and pastured with the foaming boars. If your clothing has been soiled by yellow dust, this little oxtail brush will clean it with a light whisk.”
Martial continues with a wry observation on the behaviour of those with new money during his day, a time when expansion was bringing an influx of wealth into the empire and changing people’s values.
“On wintry cold days of Saturnalia, Umber used to give me, when he was poor, a cape as a gift. Now he gives me a drink, because he has become rich.”
Not all Romans embraced the spirit of the season. One of Martial’s contemporaries, Seneca the Younger, a Stoic, was somewhat disapproving of the excesses of the season. But we can certainly relate to his feelings a little when Christmas decorations and ads start appearing in October.
“This is the month of December, when the whole city is aglow with excitement. License has been given for intemperate behaviour by the general public. Everywhere you can hear the sound of elaborate preparations, as if there were some differences between the Saturnalia and regular business days. The distinction is fading. I think that man was quite right who said, ‘December used to be a month; now it’s the whole year.’”
By looking back, we can see our primeval need to celebrate at this time of year, just as we have been doing for longer than we can remember. We discover that the real reason for the season, when we dig past the greed and the intemperate behaviour, is to rejoice in light returning to the earth. Whether we believe that that light is a baby saviour, a miracle that provided oil that kept lamps lit for eight days or simply the sun’s return; when our days are dark and cold, we are compelled to celebrate by bringing light and lightness into our lives and the lives of others.
 Statius, Silvae, translated by Jo-Ann Shelton.
 Cato the Elder, On Agriculture.
 Martial, Epigrams, Translated by Jo-Ann Shelton.
 Seneca the Younger, Letters, Translated by Jo-Ann Shelton.