Christmas today is associated with Santa Claus, gift exchange, decorations and over indulgence of all the things we love. But how did the Romans celebrate during the festive season almost 2000 years ago?
Saturnalia originated as a farmers' festival and commemorated the dedication of the temple of Saturn, the Roman god of agriculture and the harvest. During this the Romans’ basically enjoyed a good mid-winter knees up! They would feast on the finest foods, drink the finest ales and celebrate with dancing, singing and everything fun!
We say that during Christmas today the whole world shuts down – the same thing happened during the Saturnalia. During Saturnalia the ordinarily rigid and conservative social restrictions of the Romans became relaxed and tables would turn, masters served their slaves during a feast and adults would serve children. People would wear a cap of freedom, known as the pilleum, which was usually worn by slaves, who had been awarded their freedom, to symbolise that they were ‘free’ during the Saturnalia. Conservative clothing was swapped for brightly coloured robes and usually banned public gambling was allowed!
Rowdy Romans would spill out onto the streets shouting, “Io Saturnalia!” the way we might greet people with ‘Merry Christmas!’ or ‘Happy New Year!’ nowadays. Chariot racing was an important component of the Saturnalia and the associated sun-god festivities around that time – by the late fourth century AD there might be up to 36 races a day.
Saturnalia was described by first-century AD poet Gaius Valerius Catullus as “the best of times”. It was certainly the most popular holiday in the Roman calendar.
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