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When in Rome, party like the Romans!

With Christmas around the corner, I’m reminded by a simple fact:  humans are natural party animals—Pars hominum, or so Google Translate tells me. 

We probably don’t know when and how the first party started; thankfully, ancient writers have described different festivals, each unique in their own way. One festival from Roman times stands out from the rest, influencing what would later become Christmas: Saturnalia. 

Saturnalia was a festival dedicated to Saturn, a Roman god who is typically equated with his Greek counterpart, Kronos. Saturn was associated with agriculture, depicted in a Roman fresco covered by a winter cloak wielding a scythe. According to legend, after Jupiter overthrew his father, Saturn fled to Latium, the location where Rome would later be built. Saturn’s reign over this region brought upon a prosperous era, where he would teach the local people the basics of agriculture. This Roman interpretation is a complete departure from the Greek story, since Zeus chained his father Kronos inside Tartarus, the deepest region of the Underworld, alongside many Titans. 

This slight reinterpretation caused early Roman farmers to pay tribute to Saturn around the Winter Solstice (December 21st). The event was a one-day festival, which extended to seven days as Rome got bigger and bigger. By the time of the Roman Empire, Augustus Caesar reduced the festival to three days; Caligula and later Claudius would extend it to five days. Nevertheless, seven days remained as the de facto time Saturnalia  lasted.

So, how did the Romans celebrate Saturnalia? Let’s say you happen to get whisked away by a time-traveling Roman fairy on your way home. Great! The clock winds back somewhere around the turn of the 1st century.

You’re finally in Rome! The city of Julius Caesar, Cicero, Ovid and many soon-to-be-born figures in history. After sinking in the scenery, you’ll promptly be taken into custody (why wouldn’t you?) for looking weird. Two things might happen to you: be sold into slavery or, by the grace of Augustus, be set free. Regardless of the decision, your enjoyment during Saturnalia won’t be affected at all.  

At the eve of Saturnalia, bulls and other animals were sacrificed at the Temple of Saturn, and the meat was handed out to be roasted. Then the woolen binds around the legs of Saturn’s statue were cut, symbolizing the deity’s liberation.

And thus Saturnalia officially begun. 

 Citizens and non-citizens were allowed to wear the pileus, the hat of the freeman; masters and slaves reversed roles; rules of etiquette were thrown out the window; and the usual ban on gambling was lifted. In short, social norms were relaxed to pave the way for a more merry and joyous atmosphere.

Walking the streets of Rome, you’d encounter naked people singing at the top of their lungs, drunkards roaming the streets, and a multitude of people wearing the greek synthesis, a gown-like garment only used in private parties and typically frowned upon in public. If you hang out the entire day, the “king” of Saturnalia —Saturnalicius princeps, chosen by the commoners by a dice-roll — might stumble upon you and order you on the spot to, I don’t know, run around the streets while yelling Io, Saturnalia! (the Latin equivalent for “Merry Christmas”). And you should, since it’s Saturnalia.

But by far the most noticeable feature of Saturnalia that influenced the development of Christmas was the gift-giving. Children received wax dolls and dice; adults exchanged clothing and/or animals. At the end of Saturnalia, there’s a high chance that someone will hand you a sigilla (a terracotta figurine) and candles representing light and warmth. Or they’ll lend you money to buy stuff, no interest needed. Maybe.

So, wrapping up, I’d like to expound the reason why this Roman tradition shares similarities with Christmas. It’s good to remind ourselves that Christianity was born during the Roman Empire, and thus Christians were thoroughly embedded in this culture. So it’s unsurprising that Christians, converted or long-time followers, desired continuing this tradition, albeit accommodating it into their moral/religious framework. Another cause for the similarities between Christmas and Saturnalia revolved around the early church’s attempt to convert the swaths of non-Christians that still remained within the Roman Empire, despite Christianity reigning supreme as the official religion. To dissuade many polytheists from offering sacrifices to Jupiter and to the Greco-roman pantheon, church officials made the conscious choice to celebrate a christian-themed festival that coincided around the time of Saturnalia. Obviously, Jesus Christ became the major figure of this winter celebration, despite the Bible never mentioning when Jesus was born. And the rest, as it’s said, is history.

Emilio H. Mejill Ortiz is a fifth-year UPRM student pursuing a mayor in pure mathematics. His two dreams after graduating is to one day publish a novel and to drive from Miami to Seattle. He loves reading, learning about history, and strives to master koine greek.
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