Time to get nerdy about Christmas. Today, we are talking Saturnalia.
In ancient Rome, December 17 was Saturnalia, the holiday celebrating the god Saturnus. Saturnus, the Roman cognate of the Greek god Kronos, was the first god to have a temple erected in his honor at the Capitoline Hill, the original citadel of the city of Rome. As you might imagine, that would make him pretty important to the early Romans. Saturnus legendarily ruled over the world in a golden age in which everyone was perfectly equal and enjoyed peace and prosperity before his overthrow by his son Iuppiter.
The fact that Saturnus presided over this golden age is highly important. Whereas Iuppiter was depicted as the stern father-king god, Saturnus was perceived as somewhat more generous, if a little difficult to read. Saturnalia was a temporary revivification of the times and ways of life under Saturnus. During the holiday, slaves and masters reversed roles. Varying accounts say that this went anywhere from master and slave eating together to masters serving slaves their food. Everyone wore a cap indicating their status as a libertine and slaves could talk back to their masters freely. Women also hung out with the men openly. On top of that, it was open season for gambling, otherwise regarded as socially unacceptable under the scrutiny of austere Iuppiter. Finally, in a fashion that many of us can understand, Saturnalia was a binge holiday; it was customary to eat and drink to excess and regret it the next day.
Perhaps most interestingly to us in the modern day, Saturnalia was not a single day event. Originally, Saturnalia was held sixteen days before January 1 on the old Roman calendar. When Julius Caesar reformed the calendar to keep it in step with the solar year, Saturnalia was shifted. To resolve the date disparity, Caesar Augustus ran the holiday to last from December 17 to December 23. December 19 stands out as particularly recognizable to us today. People traded little gifts on December 19, including joke gifts, like the worst book of poetry that the poet Gaius Valerius Catullus had ever seen from his friend. It was common for children to receive toys and for adults to give all kinds of gifts, many of which were described in the epigrams of Marcus Valerius Martialis. Sound familiar?
Another tidbit that contextualizes Saturnalia, just in case you have yet to see the pattern: candles were a common gift. Supposedly, the later days of Saturnalia were treated as a run-up to the winter solstice. Candles were lit to represent the renewal of light, culminating in the Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, Birthday of the Unconquered Sun. Scholars wrestle with how and why this happened, but one thing is clear despite all the uncertainty as to how this coincidence occurred: Dies Natalis Solis Invicti was celebrated on December 25.
Now for the all-important lesson: this Christmas, if you want to show how classy you are, celebrate it in the classical style of Saturnalia. Eat and drink until you puke, insult people who have authority over you, fraternize with others in socially unacceptable ways, and gamble away everything you have. When people ask what you are doing, tell them you are honoring the era of complete social equality and then give them a candle and a book of bad poetry.