Connections between Roman Saturnalia and Christmas
Saturnalia was an ancient Roman festival dedicated to the god Saturn, initially held on 17th December and later expanded through to 23rd December. Records pieced together from various accounts show that the holiday was celebrated with a sacrifice at the Temple of Saturn in the Roman Forum, a public banquet, gift-giving and continual partying. The festival overturned the usual Roman social norms: gambling was permitted and masters provided table service for their slaves. Indeed, the poet Catullus called it “the best of days”.
Saturn was an agricultural deity who was said to have reigned over the world in the Golden Age, when humans enjoyed the spontaneous bounty of the earth without labour in a state of perpetual innocence.
In one of the interpretations in Macrobius’s work, Saturnalia is a festival of light leading to the winter solstice, with candles symbolizing the quest for knowledge and truth. The renewal of light and the coming of the new year was celebrated in the later Roman Empire in the Dies Natalis of Sol Invictus, the “Birthday of the Unconquerable Sun”, on 25th December.
The popularity of Saturnalia continued into the third and fourth centuries AD and as the Roman Empire came under Christian rule, some of its customs have clearly influenced the seasonal celebrations surrounding both Christmas and New Year.
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