|Caroline wearing a pilleum for a Saturnalia talk
by Caroline Lawrence
Q. What do Christmas crackers, mulled wine, Santa hats, office parties, presents, candles, pine trees and mistletoe have to do with ancient Rome?
The Saturnalia was one of the most popular festivals in Ancient Rome, possibly going back to Etruscan times. A sacrifice of piglets was made to the god Saturn along with other rites, and there followed several days of feasting and fun. It was the custom to greet one another with the phrase Io Saturnalia! (Yo Saturnalia?) One of my Roman Mysteries, The Twelve Tasks of Flavia Gemina, was set during the mid-winter festival and I'm currently working on another one for my new Roman Mystery Scroll series, provisionally titled The Thunder Omen.
When I visit schools to talk about my Roman Mysteries, I often share the following dozen aspects of the Saturnalia which make children realise that Christmas has plenty of non-Christian aspects:
I. WINTER SOLSTICE - The Saturnalia began on December 17, a few days before the winter solstice. The Saturnalia was essentially a pagan festival to bring back the sun. And some Romans celebrated the birth of a new god from the Middle East at this time.
II. BIRTH OF A GOD - Some scholars believe that the Persian god Mithras and/or the Roman god Sol Invictus had birthday celebrations on the winter solstice which fell on 25 December in the Roman calendar. It wasn’t until about AD 400 that church leaders decided to celebrate the birth of Jesus on this day, possibly in an attempt to overlay and obliterate these 'pagan' holidays.
III. GREENERY - Around mid-winter, the Romans decorated their houses with greenery. This was a common act of sympathetic magic used in many so-called 'pagan' societies. That’s certainly where our custom of Christmas wreaths and mistletoe come from.
|Nubia and Flavia solve a mystery by lamplight
V. FEASTING. In mid-winter, instinct tells us to build up a nice layer of fat, to feast in preparation for lean times ahead, like bears before they hibernate. The Romans were no different from us in this respect... except that they had no chocolate!
VI. BOOZE. It has been medically proven that a small amount of wine added to water will kill off most known bacteria. For most of the year Romans drank diluted wine, but during the Saturnalia they often drank neat wine, heated and spiced. Mulled wine, anyone?
|from the BBC adaptation The Trials of Flavia
VIII. GAMBLING. In first century Rome, gambling was illegal... except during the Saturnalia. For those few days in mid-winter, anyone could gamble: children and slaves included. Children usually gambled with nuts. In Italy and some other Mediterranean countries this practice lives on in the seasonal Tombola and Bingo games, only held at this time of year.
|from a clay figurine in the BM
X. KING OF THE SATURNALIA. On the first night of the festival in some families, the paterfamilias threw dice to determine who in the household would be the King of the Saturnalia. The 'King' could then command people to do things, eg prepare a banquet, sing a song, run an errand. During his reign, the depraved Emperor Nero used shaved dice to ensure that he would be chosen King of the Saturnalia even though he was already the most powerful man in the known world. (Big bully.) I wonder if the paper crowns in Christmas crackers hearken back to this tradition?
XI. GIFTS. Just like us, the Romans gave gifts on the Saturnalia: traditionally candles, silver objects, preserved fruit and especially sigilla: small clay or wooden figures, often with moveable joints. (I guess Barbie dolls and boys' action figures are the modern equivalent.) But the ancient Romans gave gifts of every value and size, from something as small as a toothpick to something as big as a slave. The Saturnalia was traditionally a time of commercialism and shopping. The first century philosopher Seneca grumbled about the shopping season: "Decembris used to be a month; now it's a whole year." Plus ça change...!
|A fun Saturnalia mystery for kids 8+
So as you celebrate Christmas this year, think about the ancient Romans and how many customs they passed down to us. And take this fun QUIZ to see how much you learned!
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The Twelve Tasks of Flavia Gemina is the perfect Saturnalia gift for a history-loving boy or girl. You can also buy both seasons of the BBC television adaptation of the Roman Mysteries books, including the Saturnalia episode, renamed "The Trials of Flavia". Kids will also enjoy The Thunder Omen, a Roman Mystery spin-off. It features a loveable beggar boy, and some dancing Saturnalia chickens. Adult readers will enjoy T.J. Leary's excellent commentary on Martial's Saturnalia poems.