Cast off your togas!
Saturnalia was a festival celebrated in Ancient Rome for a few days in late December, beginning on the 17th and sometimes lasting through the 23rd. (Emperors attempted to contain the number of days with varying degrees of success.) Saturn was the Roman god of agriculture. I am not sure why his festival was scheduled on December 17, but there was another festival for his wife, Ops, goddess of sowing, reaping, and fertility, two days later that got incorporated. Another holiday, Consualia, for Consus, the god of stored grains and seeds, was celebrated on December 15, which was the end of the autumn sowing season. The changing calendars (Roman, Julian, Gregorian) further confuse the issue of dates and holidays, and so it should not be surprising that some Saturnalia customs have been merged into our modern Christmas.
I've been doing a lot of research on holiday origins lately. I love writing, but I'm not big on research or reading, and this is because I'm lazy. I'd rather somebody else do all the research, consolidate, and tell me. The problem with that method of learning is that you have to trust whoever is telling you the story, trust their resources, and trust their ability to relay the facts correctly.
When it comes to researching the origins of the Christian holiday we know as Christmas, I have had to be wary of the source. Is the article written by a Christian who wants to gloss over or omit the pagan origins of certain customs, or is it written by an atheist who would have you doubt that anything about Christianity is original at all?
What I have been learning is that holidays and rituals often seem to borrow from other nearby holidays and rituals of other religions. Christmas appears to borrow from St. Nicholas Day (Dec 6), Saturnalia (Dec 17-23), the birthday of the Unconquerable Sun (Dec 25), and other solstice customs practiced by druids, Scandinavians, early Germans, Egyptians, and possibly Persians. (That Unconquerable Sun, aka Sol Invictus, may or may not be related to the Roman cult of Mithras, which may or may not be related to the Persian god Mitra. It maketh my braineth to hurt.) But if you think about it, it's not hard to see why most religions would have festivals around the solstice, when the world is darkest (in this hemisphere) and winter makes life difficult. Why not bring in some light and fun?
It appears that many sources attribute the Christmas custom of giving gifts not just to St. Nicholas filling up stockings but to the Roman Saturnalia festival that predated St. Nick. Most sources will tell you that Saturnalia was a Roman festival involving feasts, gift giving, role reversals (yes, even in the bedroom!), merry making, and relaxed morals. It was in honor of the god Saturn and borrowed from the Greek festival Cronia, which was in honor of the Greek counterpart to Saturn, Cronus. Well, that's a nice, short description, but I want to know the WHY of it all.
Saturn/Cronus was the Roman/Greek god of agriculture. He dethroned his dad, ruled for a while, and then was in turn dethroned by his son Jupiter/Zeus. The Romans believed that when Saturn ruled (a time before their civilization), it was a Golden Age, when food was abundant, work was not necessary, and all humans were equals. In remembrance of and longing for those days, they held a feast in Saturn's honor. They unshackled the tethers that otherwise inhibited the statue of Saturn at his temple during the rest of the year, symbolizing his return to rule. They feasted in memory of the Golden Age. Rules, morals, and attire became more relaxed for several days. Everyone was allowed to gamble, and no wars or trials were held. Sometimes people went caroling in the streets - naked!
At banquets, masters served their slaves (remembering the Golden Age when all were equals). In one region, a male was chosen by lottery to play the part of Saturn and could engage in all manner of debauchery for a week until being sacrificed at the end of the festival. However, mostly the custom seems to have been observed more like our modern Mardi Gras king cakes and the chance to be king for a day. Role reversals and king-for-a-night are also part of Twelfth Night celebrations (aka Epiphany or the Twelfth Day of Christmas).
During Saturnalia, revelers often wore a special felt hat. It was the kind of hat typically worn by freed slaves, so it symbolized the freedom from restrictions, but it sounds a bit like a Santa hat to me.
The next time you hear someone complaining about how Christmas has become so commercialized and materialistic "nowadays," think of the Saturnalia, which also involved lots of gift giving - so much so that special markets sprang up to sell the typical gifts: wax candles and clay figures (some with movable parts like action figures and Barbies!). Other gifts that were popular: oil lamps, food, furniture, grooming supplies, dice, knives, cups, jewelry, stationery - just about the same stuff we give today.
I was personally intrigued to learn that instead of attaching our modern day gift tags, Romans composed and attached two-line poems to go with their Saturnalia gifts. I've been composing a rhyming, metered Christmas letter for the past 20 years. Coincidence?
Romans also decorated their homes or themselves with evergreens. I'll get more into that in other blog posts about various solstice celebrations, and the festivals of Mithras and the Invincible Sun God, both of whom were also worshipped in Ancient Rome with celebrations in December. Their rituals were woven in to Saturnalia.
That's the beauty of paganism: the more gods, the more celebrations!
The Saturnalia t-shirt/photo came from this website.