Saturnalia: a source of holiday traditions
Posted on Friday, 16 December, 2011 | 2 comments
Columnist: Victoria Grossack
As the end of the year draws near, people are hanging wreaths on their doors and decorating their houses and trees with lights. They’re also buying gifts for their families and friends, making a round of parties and wearing silly hats. These activities are not necessarily mentioned in the Bible as part of the birth of Christ and yet many people associate them with Christmas. Where did they come from? Many were co-opted from the Saturnalia, a Roman holiday.
Who was Saturn?
Saturn was the father of Jupiter, the king of the gods on Mount Olympus. Saturn and Jupiter are the Roman names for the gods, while their Greek names are Cronus (also spelled Kronos) and Zeus, respectively. As the best-known story is usually told using the Greek names, I’ll use those below.
Cronus was one of the Titans, a set of Greek gods. Because he was warned that his children would overthrow him, he was a particularly abusive father. Whenever Rhea, his wife, gave birth, he took the infant and swallowed it.
After losing five infants this way – three daughters (Hestia, Demeter and Hera) and two sons (Hades and Poseidon) – Rhea had had enough. After giving birth to Zeus, she presented Cronus with a stone wrapped in blankets. He was so uninterested in his offspring that he swallowed the stone without bothering to unwrap it. In the meantime, Rhea sent her youngest son to the island of Crete to be raised in secrecy.
Time passed. We don’t know exactly how much time, because we don’t know how long it takes for gods to grow up. At any rate, when Zeus was older and larger, he went to his father’s court. Cronus had no idea that the handsome lad was his son, and decided that to make Zeus his cupbearer. Zeus took advantage of his new position and put a powerful emetic into his father’s goblet. So Cronus, when he drank from the cup that Zeus had tampered with, began vomiting. This caused him to upchuck the five children that he had swallowed earlier (as well as, presumably, the stone that his wife had used to deceive him).
Now, if Zeus’ five older siblings had been regular people, they could never have survived their time in their father’s stomach. However, they were immortals, which meant that they could not die. So when they came out of their father’s mouth, they were not only alive but had grown up in the meantime. Naturally, they resented their father’s treatment of them and allied themselves with their brother Zeus to overthrow Cronus and the Titans.
As everyone knows, Zeus and his siblings were victorious. The three brothers divided the realm into three: Hades took the Underworld, Poseidon the Seas, and Zeus became Lord of Heaven and Earth and sat on Mount Olympus’ high throne.
Cronus was as immortal as his children, and hence Zeus could not kill him. All Zeus could do was keep his father locked up in Tartarus, a dungeon of torture and suffering beneath the Underworld.
Zeus showed a little leniency. On one day a year, he let his father out of prison. In Greece the celebration of Cronus was called the “Kronia” and took place in late summer, after the harvest, because Cronus was a god of agriculture.
Let’s return to Rome. In the temple dedicated Saturn, that god’s imprisonment was demonstrated by binding the statue with ropes for most of the year. For the Saturnalia, the ropes were untied. Furthermore, a couch was placed before the temple. As the couch was the piece of furniture on which the wealthy reclined for banquets, the couch symbolized a time of feasting and merriment. Jupiter was apparently less forgiving than Zeus, because he chose to release his father Saturn on one of the shortest days of the year, near the winter solstice.
Although Zeus/Jupiter and his siblings had good reason for hating their father, mortal men and women did not. Cronus/Saturn was known for having ruled over the Golden Age, before there was winter (winter is blamed on Demeter, one of Zeus’ sisters). Even after the Titans were vanquished Cronus/Saturn was still revered as an important god of agriculture. So they would begin their festival with the words “Io, Saturnalia!” which is pronounced “yo, Saturnalia” and means “praise to Saturnalia.”
Furthermore, the idea that a prisoner could run wild for a day appealed to many. In many households in Rome and Greece, roles were reversed. Slaves did not have to work and were even waited upon by their masters and mistresses. The reason for this was that during the Golden Age, supposedly there had been no slaves. Another frequently used tactic was giving a child or another incompetent the decisions for the day – the position was known as “the Lord of Misrule” – with the expectation that dessert would be eaten first, everyone could stay up late, and people could be commanded to do very silly things. Only when Zeus/Jupiter and parents and masters and mistresses resumed their authority was the “proper” order restored and chaos vanquished.
The Saturnalia was so popular that it grew. Instead of lasting only a single day, it sometimes lasted as long as seven, giving everyone an excuse to party longer. Saturn would certainly have been pleased at his popularity!
What does all of this have to do with the traditions of Christmas? Many of the traditions associated with Christmas were practiced during the Saturnalia. Let’s consider them:
Gifts were frequently exchanged during Saturnalia. Although the Magi and a fourth-century bishop called Nicholas who secretly gave gifts to the needy are reasons to associate gift giving with Christianity, the practice existed long before the birth of Christ.
Candles made of beeswax were especially popular gifts. Obviously candles would be useful during the season’s long nights, and they were a luxury when the alternative was a smoky oil lamp. Candles are associated with many other winter solstice holidays. People still light Advent candles, and decorate their houses with glittering lights (before electricity they used candles). Of course there are other reasons for lighting candles, but is it possible that the adoption of this tradition by the Christian community was encouraged by the candle-makers of the time?
Celebration and the chance to drink and make merry were a large part of the Saturnalia. People partied and visited friends and relatives. Although this may not be technically a part of “Christmas,” many Christians go to several holiday parties during the month of December.
Timing of Christmas was influenced by the timing of the Saturnalia. The Saturnalia was an extremely popular holiday and the Christians needed a festival just as popular in order to make their religion attractive. (Another reason for choosing the 25th of December, which most experts agree could not have been Jesus’ actual birthdate, was because that day was associated Mithras, a god with many similarities to Jesus – but that is a subject for another article.)
Santa’s hat, also worn by many of his elves, resembles the felt hat worn by slaves during Saturnalia. The peaked felt hat was the symbol of the freedman – a slave who was no longer a slave – and as slaves were “freed” for the duration of the holiday, they wore it during the festival.
Evergreens made popular decorations. Now, the Romans did not cut down entire trees and bring them into their homes for the season, as that would have been wasteful, but they often brought in branches. The fact that evergreens did not lose their leaves was a symbol of hope and a victory over winter. Evergreens certainly smelled good, too, bringing a fresh scent to homes that must have become very stuffy during the season when people were forced to be indoors and when washing was more difficult because of the cold.
For many centuries this particular custom was actually banned by Christians who considered it too pagan. Eventually evergreens were adopted, however, and finally morphed into the Christmas tree. Nowadays some Christians shun it as too pagan while some non-Christians shun Christmas trees for being too Christian. Some groups such as Nova Roma encourage people to stop cutting down trees and instead to celebrate living trees by decorating them outside. None of these attitudes is particularly good for the Christmas tree industry, but of course it’s great for the trees.
Many customs have multiple origins, and the traditions currently associated with Christmas certainly came from many sources. But the most enjoyable may have been the Saturnalia. Raise your glass and toast Saturn’s day of liberty – as well as your own, if you have time off during the holidays. Io Saturnalia!
If you want to read more about the evolution of Christmas traditions, check out these sources
“Winter Holidays Celebrating the Solstice,” by NS Gill at About.com. http://ancienthistory.about.com/od/winterholidays/p/WinterHolidays.htm?nl=1
“Saturnalia: Celebrate the Saturnalia (Santa’s Cap Goes Back to the Saturnalia),” by NS Gill at About.com
“Roman Holidays: Saturnalia,”
“Jesus as a Reincarnation of Mithra,” http://www.near-death.com/experiences/origen048.html
“All about the Christmas Tree: Pagan origins, Christian adaptation, & secular status,” http://www.religioustolerance.org/xmas_tree.htm Article Copyright© Victoria Grossack - reproduced with permission.
Victoria Grossack is the author, with Alice Underwood, of several novels based on Greek mythology, published in both English and Greek. Their books include: JOCASTA: The Mother-Wife of Oedipus; Niobe & Pelops: CHILDREN OF TANTALUS; Niobe & Amphion: THE ROAD TO THEBES; Niobe & Chloris: ARROWS OF ARTEMIS. To learn more about them, their writing and their research, please visit www.tapestryofbronze.com. Of course their books make wonderful gifts for those who love Greek mythology!. Celebrate Saturnalia (or any other festival) by enjoying some time in the Bronze Age.