‘Those people who, if a little cynically, take pleasure in calling the Christmas holiday period the ‘mid-winter pagan festival’, are closer to the truth than they might realise, because the ancient celebration of the year’s death and rebirth never really went away – or at least not when it was supposed to. While the idea of lighting up the otherwise dreary low point of winter’s shortest day and longest night with drinking, feasting and the exchange of gifts might be as old as human civilisation itself, the path by which our current celebration came to take on its current form is not a simple one. Like so many other aspects of our society’s ways of doing things it owes a good deal to the Romans, and the purest expression of that age old urge to throw off winter’s chains was for centuries to be found in a tradition that lasted almost as long as Roman civilisation itself – Saturnalia!
A festival which began as a celebration for farmers to give thanks for the end of the autumn planting season, in honour of the god Saturn (the Latin word for sowing being satus), the holiday was a nostalgic celebration of a mythical time, the ‘golden age’ when mankind lived in a simple and apparently untroubled rural idyll. The religious aspects of the holiday saw the god’s statues, whose legs were usually fettered with woollen bindings, liberated from these restraints in a ceremony accompanied by ritual sacrifices which were carried out under Greek rite (by a priest whose head was uncovered, essentially) a practice adopted instead of Roman rite (with covered head), a change made to appease the gods after the disastrous battle of Lake Trasemene in 217BC. Feasting followed, and the day was declared a holiday from work of any kind, with the usually serious Roman focus on exercise forgotten, and school children delighted by the closure of their places of learning.
Executions were postponed, since the courts were also closed, and the declaration of war was not allowed. In effect, the entire Roman state stopped work for the day, probably to a much greater degree than is the case today.
The poet Catullus, writing in the first century, called the feast ‘the best of times’, and perhaps the early empire was Saturnalia’s zenith. Clothes were exchanged between master and servant, slaves would be served their celebratory meal by their owners (having first cooked the food, of course), and gifts both humble and extravagant would be exchanged. Candles were used widely to bring light to the festivities, and behaviours were relaxed to a degree that would have been unthinkable at any other time of the year. Obeying the whim of a temporary Saturnalian king of the household chosen by the roll of the dice family, servants and slaves would get drunk, play noisy games, and even (apparently) sing naked as commanded. No reprimand for such behaviour was permitted, although all concerned would, in the back of their minds, have harboured the realisation that when the feast was ended their relationships would return to normal, and that any slight, actual or imagined, might well be punished in a multitude of ways. The social dynamics of a house where the servants got too drunk for their own good (unless the family they served had shared their inebriation) must have been exquisitely difficult in the days that followed.
The feast gradually grew in duration, and also moved later and later in the calendar, so that from a relatively modest two-day affair in the empire’s earliest days under Augustus, starting on the 17th of December and continuing on the 18th and 19th with a time of private family celebration, it was to become a much greater festival. By the time Lucian was writing on the subject 150 years or so later it spanned a full week, and changes to the calendar attributed to Domitian, who ruled late in the first century AD, had moved its main feast day to the 25th of December. Seeking to control the festival’s undertone of subversion – being notoriously and deservedly insecure in his rule – he, like Caligula before him, another insecure emperor who tried in vain to limit the festival to five days, had sought to control it by bringing it under state control, with night time torch-lit games featuring female and dwarf gladiators. But Saturnalia resisted all attempts to contain its primal energy, and was still being celebrated well into the fifth century even as the western Roman empire was in its death throes, to judge from the work of the poet Macrobius’s description of the feast at the time. Of course much was to change with the rise to power of the empire’s first Christian emperor, Constantine, whose victory as a convert to what was to become one of the world’s most powerful monotheistic religions eventually resulted in the 25th of December being declared as the birth date of Christ – although in reality this is felt more likely to have been sometime in September.
So, is it fair to say that an increasingly Christian empire had simply hijacked a pagan festival to its own ends? Perhaps. But it’s worth bearing in mind that Christianity had an equally muscular rival for the affections of the Roman peoples’ devotion in Mithras. Like the worship of the Christ, Mithraism originated in the east, and was brought to Rome by returning soldiers (along with a rather nasty outbreak of plague that killed millions in the late second century and was a key contributor to the crisis of the third century due to crippling depopulation). The 25th of December was – perhaps opportunistically – declared the festival of ‘the birthday of the Unconquered Sun’, honouring the mithraic cult of Sol Invicta. Ultimately to become a state religion in the second half of the third century, in a brief blaze of glory that was cut short by the victory of Constantine, it was made strong – as with so many Roman successes – by its ability to assimilate the best features of other religions, in this case the way in which it reflected, through its imagery, the total dominion of the empire’s apparently divine rulers. A religion of power, widely adopted by the legions, it seemed to afford a succession of late third century emperors, who assumed the status of living gods (where previously emperors only became gods upon their deaths, and were simply the empire’s ‘first citizens’), with a popular belief that would support their absolute power.
But if late Roman emperors sought to use Sol Invicta to curb the festival’s wilder excesses and use religion to bring about a more pious festival, they were to be disappointed. The mithraic version of the holiday ended up as a face lifted version of Saturnalia, and it is felt likely that when a Christian finally assumed untrammelled power in the form of the emperor Constantine, his chosen religion took over the festival – fortuitously synchronised with the official birth of Christ – simply to eradicate the last traces of Sol Invictus as a state religion whose time had to be seen to have come and gone. That Saturnalia was to continue as a pagan festival, probably tolerated by a succession of Christian emperors in much the same way that their first century forebears had been obliged to live with its excesses and subversive practices, is evidenced by writings in the late fourth and early fifth centuries. Put simply, the people of Rome knew a good thing when they saw it, and weren’t about to allow the chance for a good old fashioned winter solstice feast to be usurped, whether it had been claimed by the state religion or not.
So when you wish your neighbour a happy mid-winter pagan festival, you’re closer to the truth than you know.
Anthony Riches began his lifelong interest in war and soldiers when he first heard his father's stories about World War II. This led to a degree in Military Studies at Manchester University. He began writing the story that would become Wounds of Honour after a visit to Housesteads in 1996. He lives in Hertfordshire with his wife and three children.
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