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History of Christmas: Day 4 – The Roman Saturnalia (16 BCE) December 20, 2012

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The History of Christmas
Day 4: The Roman Saturnalia – 16 BCE

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By all accounts, the celebration of Saturnalia, commemorating the dedication of the temple of Saturn, the god of the harvest, grew to be the largest and most popular in ancient Rome. By 16BCE, the festivities lasted a full week, starting on the seventeenth and ending around the twenty-third day of December.

At the temple, a massive couch would be placed in front of it and the ropes which tethered the statue of Saturn for the rest of the year were let loose. It was a time to eat, drink and be merry. Celebrants even replaced the traditional toga with the synthesis – a colorful, informal dinner clothing.

Saturnalia included both public and private celebrations. Schools closed and a special market, the Sigillaria, opened to the public. Public gambling, usually frowned upon, grew to be a highlight of the merriment. The tomfoolery included the switching of places between masters and slaves, though this did not subvert the status quo.

*

In the city of Rome, it is yet ten years before the birth of Christ. On December 17th, the festival of the Saturnalia has begun as two good friends meet in the street near the Temple of Saturn.

“Caelianus! Have you been to temple yet? Have they loosed his bonds?”

Quintis Nepius Caelianus smiled at his good friend. “Io Saturnalia, Sidonius. Yes, they’ve loosened the god and the holiday has officially begun.”

“Good! And as old Saturn has been liberated so shall young Romans be liberated for celebration! Will the sweet Paccia Marciana be accompanying you to the banquet today, Caelianus?”

“Again, yes. I’m sure that her beauty will recommend seats near the head of Saturn himself. Who will you be attending with? Spirited Poppaea or the lovely Didia?”

“A very good question. I have purchased candles for both of them but I fear if I ask one and not the other I shall be in dire straits. Still I am leaning toward Poppaea. Didia would certainly look grand on my arm, but Poppaea will be more fun to party with.”

Caelianus nodded. “Well deserved straits too, by my way of thinking. Poppaea would be an excellent choice for Saturnalia.”

“At any rate will the two of you visit my doma afterwards?”

“I can’t think of anywhere else we would rather celebrate the festival, Sidonius. How many other couples will be attending?”

“Fifty in all. It should be quite a party.”

“What of Durio and Ulpia?”

“Both confirmed. Is there still bad blood between you and Durio? Oh remember, no togas. Everyone will be comfortable and relaxed. There will be plenty of wine, food and gifts; enough to party for days.”

“There is nothing between Durio and me that can’t be put off for the holidays. That’s encouraging, Sidonius. What kind of gifts?”

“Sigillaria, of course. Statues for everyone!”

“Fascinating. I have quite a collection already. I must leave to gather my flower. The streets are already crammed and we don’t want to arrive late for the public feast. See you there, Sidonius. Io Saturnalia.”

“Io Saturnalia, Caelianus. Give my love to Paccia!”

*

The Saturnalia brought many firsts to the celebration of Christmas:  Schools being closed for the holiday, the giving of gifts, and public feasts are only a few.  One of the most noticeable to my mind is the salutation of “Io Saturnalia,” heard everywhere during the holiday.  This phrase became the forerunner of “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Holidays.”

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