The ancient Romans are often attributed with a variety of creations that we still use today such as concrete, the first bound books and even the modern Gregorian calendar which is modeled after the Roman’s Julian calendar. Roman society itself is considered one of the greatest societies of all time having one of the most advanced political systems which consisted of patricians who governed the city from the senate and having conquered nearly all the Mediterranean by its height in 117 A.D. One of the Romans lesser known festival’s begun long before their height in 497 B.C. and was considered “the best of days” according to the poet Catullus (Poems, XIV).
Saturnalia was a holiday created to honor the God Saturn who was considered the God of the earth. Saturnalia was a celebration of light before the winter solstice from December 17 to December 23. By worshiping Saturn they would be blessed with a Golden age of plentiful crops and a stress free year. The Romans created the temple of Saturn at the base of the Capitoline hill in Rome to honor the God; during the festivities the statue of Saturn had the woolen bonds which clasped its feet loosened to symbolize the liberation of Saturn. During the festivities Roman law was relaxed to allow many typically banned acts to be allowed such as gambling. On top of the relaxed laws a priest would offer a human sacrifice to honor the God Saturn who was said to eat his own children. Priests would dress is traditional garb without the hooded portion and hold a ceremonial sacrifice. Another bizarre event during the festival was a feast prepared for slaves by their slave masters, the slaves would swap roles with their masters and would even dress in the master’s fabulous garbs during the festival. The entire holiday was essentially a cultural role swap as many things that were typically frowned upon were actually promoted, which can be seen by the slave’s feast, the allowance of gambling, and the cowl-less garb worn by the priest amongst many other peculiar activities such as drunken nude singing in the streets!
Saturnalia is often compared to modern day Christmas as it consisted of similar festivities, gift giving and decorating of the land during the winter solstice. Once Constantine accepted Christianity as an acceptable religion and the Roman Philocalian calendar was created in 354 A.D. the last day of Saturnalias celebration was placed on December 25. The Roman Catholic Church then adopted Saturnalia in an effort to convert the masses that celebrated it. The people of Rome expressed concern about the continuance of Saturnalia under Christian rule. Catholic leaders succeeded in converting them to “Christianity” by promising them they would still be able to celebrate the holiday under the name “Christmas”. As Stephen Nissenbaum, professor of history at the University of Massachussetts, writes “In return for ensuring massive observance of the anniversary of the Savior’s birth by assigning it to this resonant date, the Church for its part tacitly agreed to allow the holiday to be celebrated more or less the way it had always been”(The Battle For Christmas). This statement is further confirmed by the poet Ambrosius Theodosius Macrobius, who wrote the following in “the festival was still alive and well under the Christian emperors rule”(Macrobius: Saturnalia, Books 3-5). Whether we still celebrate Saturnalia is up for debate as there is no clear connection between the two outside of the texts that place both festivals on the same day and the brief writings of poets during Rome’s transitional phase to Christianity.