Tuesday 20 December 2016

How the Romans celebrated Christmas #history @Oldbrookender

How the Romans celebrated Christmas

Verulamium Walls

When I first decided to write ‘Divided Empire’, I had to wanted the book to commence in what is now the month of December 390 AD and have Flavius and Siward rescuing Corellia, whilst she was on her way to celebrate the Christ Mass at Gesoriacum. I then began to wonder whether Christmas, or Christ Mass, would have been celebrated in the late fourth century Western Roman Empire. I decided that I wasn’t sure about this and so decided to move the events of the book, on to the summer of the following year. I like to research the events in my books as accurately as possible and realised that Christmas in Roman times was an area that I knew little about and so decided to find out more.
I was aware that the Romans celebrated a festival called Saturnalia and knew that it took place towards the end of the year, but my knowledge was sketchy. Researching Saturnalia, I found out that it was originally dedicated to the god Saturn and was celebrated in December. Winter festivals have always been popular amongst different societies. Macrobius, a Roman who lived during the early 5th Century AD had written about the origins of Saturnalia and in one of the interpretations of his work Saturnalia is described as a festival of light leading up to the winter solstice which occurs on the 21st or 22nd of December. The timing of Saturnalia made sense to me, it is after all the time of the shortest and quite often the darkest days and it is human nature to want to have something to look forward to.

 Roman Dolphin Brooch
As I delved into the history of Saturnalia I found that other writers
 had written that Saturnalia had been the merging of three winter festivals. In the later Roman Empire “the Birthday of the Unconquerable Sun” was celebrated and a calendar dated to AD 354 gives the date of the celebration to the 25th of December. The length of the Saturnalia celebrations also varied in accounts from two to seven days, but all the commentators on the vent seemed to agree that it took place during the period of 17th to 25th December.

Multangular Tower
So, what form did the Saturnalia celebrations take? There were various accounts of the celebrations from several commentator’s, the consensus being that it was a time of feasting, drinking, singing (naked in the streets according to one account), dancing, gambling, gift-giving and general revelry. The normal social norms were relaxed and for the duration of Saturnalia masters and slaves became equals. So, one would expect it to have been a popular festival, but apparently, it wasn’t for everyone. Seneca is said to have complained that the mob went out of control “in pleasantries”, whilst Pliny the Younger retired to his garden summer house so that the noise of his servant’s merry making wouldn’t interrupt his studies. Still some enjoyed it and even the Roman Emperors joined in by giving gifts at Saturnalia.
So, what happened when the Emperor Constantine 1 (known as Constantine the Great) converted to Christianity, did Saturnalia become Christmas? Well at first there were not a great many changes. The Edict of Milan extended toleration to Christians and ended their persecution, but the Christian Church was at this time however a divided one, due to the schisms within it and pagan worship continued.  It should also be realised that for the early Christians, the actual date of Jesus’ birth hadn’t been decided upon and variations were March 28th, September 11th and November 18th.  For the early Christians Easter was a more important date as a holy day.
By the 4th century however Christianity was becoming the more dominant religion in the Roman Empire. The Emperor Theodosius’ edict in 384AD made public sacrifices and pagan religious ceremonials capital offences and by 392AD all pagan worship was prohibited. The early Christian leaders knew however that banning a popular festival such as Saturnalia would cause unrest and so in the 4th century they adopted it and turned it into a Christian one. It is said that large numbers of pagans were converted to Christianity on the understanding that they could continue to celebrate Saturnalia as Christians.
Eventually in the late 4th century the 25th December, the last day of Saturnalia was settled upon as the date for Jesus’ birthday (although later the Orthodox Church in the Byzantine Empire fixed the date of Christmas as the 6th January). Hopes that the Christian’s leaders may have had that some of the excesses of Saturnalia would be curbed when it became a Christian festival, didn’t always materialise. There are accounts that the earliest Christmas holidays were still celebrated by drinking to excess, sexual indulgence and singing naked in the streets.  
So, it seems that the Christmas we celebrate today had its roots firmly in the pagan festival of Saturnalia. Even the tradition of party hats appears to have come from the Saturnalia celebrations, where it was traditional for all men, regardless of status, to wear a pileus, a pointed felt hat. So why not this Christmas, instead of, or as well as saying Merry Christmas, don’t we all say “io Saturnalia” and recognise where the Christmas celebrations originated.

Historical Fiction author, Brian Kitchen, lives in Burton upon Trent, England and enjoys walking in the countryside, photography, reading, writing, visiting museums and historic sites & buildings and supporting Burton Albion. He first became interested in the history of Roman Britain as a child and loved the Eagle of the Ninth trilogy of novels by Rosemary Sutcliff. 
The Flavius Vitulasius series by Brian Kitchen:
Divided Empire  ~ Amazon 
Dark Betrayal ~ Amazon
Should you wish to know more about Flavius & his friends, please visit his website & Facebook page:

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See you on your next coffee break!
Take Care,
Mary Anne xxx