Ancient Romans used to celebrate what was known as the winter solstice on 17 December – in 45 BC Julius Caesar reorganised the calendar and his Julian calendar resulted in the winter solstice celebrations being extended until 23 December, around the time Christians now celebrate Christmas and the birth of Jesus Christ on 25 December – “Christ’s mass”. St Peter’s in Rome plays a central role in global Christmas celebrations – but what do you need to know to celebrate like an Ancient Roman?
Piazza San Pietro, Rome, at Christmas
Saturn’s role in Christmas
The winter solstice – known to ancient Romans as Saturnalia – celebrated the god Saturn. It was the Roman equivalent of a celebration in Ancient Greece called Kronia. The ancient festival of Kronia was associated with immortality – and the ancient Romans associated the celebration with the liberation of the soul into immortality.
To the Ancient Romans, Saturn also represented the Golden Age – the god ruled agriculture and sowing seeds. He also represented gold and wealth, so not surprisingly his temple in the Roman Forum also housed the Treasury for Rome.
Temple of Saturn, Forum, Rome (Image copyright A. Meredith)
Winter in Roman times was a period when very little happened. Appeasing gods was imperative for Ancient Romans in order for life to proceed smoothly and bring good fortune. Celebrating Saturnalia was therefore also a chance to ensure that the spring crops would flourish and the subsequent year’s harvest would be bountiful.
Saturn is also credited with being the ruler of a pre-Roman era by the philosopher Justinus. The ruler Saturnus governed what we call Rome in the pre-Roman era – and he was known for ruling what we might now consider to be a Communist type of state: there was no property ownership, but all resources were shared and there was no slavery or even imprisonment.
Because of this, during Saturnalia, slaves would be allowed to sit with their masters at feasts. The Roman elite also found it entertaining to swap clothes with their slaves for some festivals and take to the streets dressed as their slaves to enjoy the festival in relative anonymity.
“Christmas” presents and cards in Ancient Rome
Just as we give Christmas presents, ancient Romans also gave gifts to friends and family during the celebration, sometimes accompanied by a poem written by the sender. This may be the start of what we now know as greetings cards containing a rhyme – or sometimes a fully-fledged poem – praising some aspect of our life or personality and wishing us bona fortuna for the year ahead. Eulogies and odes were very much a Roman practice, so when you read the greetings in your Christmas cards this year, thank the Ancient Romans for any compliments you receive! You can buy a modern-day Saturnalia card designed by Flaroh online at Redbubble.com if you want to do the full Roman Christmas this year!
The sort of gifts Ancient Romans gave at Saturnalia included small, wax or pottery figures known as sigillaria – as well as gifts of food such as figs, dates or honey, which we sometimes eat or give as gifts today at Christmas. And just as we often give gifts of money to family members, it was thought to be good luck to receive a gift of coins during Saturnalia.
Small statue of a dog found in a grave in Roman Britain – perfect gift for Saturnalia
Ancient Romans would also give gifts of wax tapers or candles during Saturnalia, to symbolise the light returning after the winter months – today we light candles at Christmas or New Year and give them as gifts. Very Roman!
“Christmas dinner” in Ancient Rome
There would be a public feast to celebrate Saturnalia in Ancient Rome – sometimes we like to go our for Christmas lunch, too. However, drunkenness in public was frowned on by the Ancient Roman – you were supposed to be able to hold your liquor in public, so if you decide to have your Christmas meal at a restaurant this year, go easy on the vino rosso and brandies!
Ancient Romans would likely eat pork – as recommended by the poet Martial, who stated: “A pig will make you a good Saturnalia.” Pigs or even sausages might also be given as gifts – today farmers sometimes give gifts of meat to friends and business associates, or we give gifts of food such as cheeses or cured meat or smoked fish or pate.
Pigs were traditionally used as a sacrifice to Saturn – many people are now vegetarian or do not eat pork for religious reasons, however. But if you want to enjoy a Roman feast this Christmas there is a recipe for an ancient Roman stew using pork on the blog Historical Italian Cooking. You can view the instructions on YouTube.
Dress like an Ancient Roman for Christmas
The Ancient Romans liked to dress up a bit for Saturnalia – and looked to the Ancient Greeks for their winter party style by decking themselves out in a Greek synthesis, meaning a piece of clothing “put together”.
Greek synthesis worn by Romans for Saturnalia (Image Pinterest)
The robe was thought to be brightly coloured and resembled a tunic rather than a toga. The Romans used to call their clothes for dining cenatoria. This was likely based on the Latin word for meal, cena. We still wear bright colours for Christmas – it is just as much a time of hope and celebration now as it was in Ancient Rome.
If you want to go the full Roman for Christmas or New year, you can now order Roman and Greek costumes online – get yourself a Roman toga from California Costumes at Amazon!
Christmas Entertainment in Ancient Rome
We might enjoy a game of Scrabble or Monopoly over the Christmas period – in Ancient Rome, gambling was permitted during the festival of Saturnalia. Like drunkenness, gambling publicly was generally frowned upon except during festivals – the Romans were also very superstitious, so might consult an oracle or seer for predictions before they placed their bets. We could do the same before we buy our tickets for the Christmas lottery!
Romans also loved music and singing – and even theatrical events – just as we like karaoke and charades at Christmas. Ancient Romans loved any opportunity to have a party and socialise – and just as Christmas is for us now, Saturnalia was one of the major times to give gifts, eat, drink and be merry, play a few games, sing our heads off and hopefully have a gamble and win some money!
Saturnalia by French painter Antoine-François Callet (1741-1823)
Legacy of Saturnalia and Christmas
The Saturnalia festival changed during different periods of the Roman era, until slowly, after the Romans began to embrace Christianity, the western European festival we recognise as Christmas began to change the traditions the Ancient Romans had embraced. The poet Catullus refers to Saturnalia as “the best of days” – and today our happiest memories are sometimes of family Christmases.
We still wear special clothes, give gifts, drink and feast and enjoy ourselves at Christmas – so maybe raise a glass to Saturn this year to thank him for getting the baubles rolling!
Felix dies nativitatis! (Happy Christmas!)
Temple of Saturn, Forum, Rome (Image copyright A. Meredith)
Merry Christmas – Buon Natale – to my followers x