There is nothing in any of the four gospels to tell us that Jesus was born in December. Medieval theologians simply considered it likely, on the basis that God's plans must surely be perfect, and that a perfect plan would have the son of God conceived during the feast of the Passover, at the same moment in the calendar as his eventual sacrifice. The placing of Christmas at this time in the year, however, had another advantage, in that the new Christian festival could slip seamlessly into the place formerly occupied by the Pagan festival of Saturnalia.
Saturnalia honoured the god Saturn, whose temple in Rome stood on the slopes of the Capitoline Hill, directly below that of the city's chief god, Jupiter "The Greatest and Best."
It was supposedly a festival of joviality, during which serious business was suspended, masters waited on their slaves, and men of all classes donned the conical felt "liberty cap" of the freed slave. Eating and drinking played a key role: it was the custom to sacrifice a suckling pig, of which the god consumed only the bones and fat.
The Roman writer, Macrobius, whose life straddled the turn of the 4th and 5th Centuries AD, tells us that the festival was originally held on a single day, the fourteenth before the Kalends of January, and that this fell on the day before the winter solstice. Julius Caesar, however, added two days to the month of December, placing Saturnalia sixteen days before the Kalends, whilst the later addition of the Sigillaria extended the festivities to seven days. Macrobius shows us the conversations at the dinner parties that took place between twelve friends over the course of the seven days. He does not, however, show them waiting on their slaves, or even dining with them. Instead, having agreed with Seneca on the humanity of slaves, and on the importance of treating them humanely, they proceed to discuss the finer points of Virgil's Aeneid, whilst course after course arrives on their table, as if by magic! One wonders whether the "spirit" of the Roman Saturnalia, like that of the Victorian Christmas, was honoured as frequently in the breach as in the observance.
Sigillaria was the occasion for gift-giving, as described by the Roman poet, Martial:
"Now, while the knights and the lordly senators delight in the festive robe, and the cap of liberty is assumed by our Jupiter; and while the slave, as he rattles the dice-box, has no fear of the Aedile, seeing that the ponds are so nearly frozen, learn alternately what is allotted to the rich and to the poor. Let each make suitable presents to his friends. That these contributions of mine are follies and trifles, and even worse, who does not know? Or who denies what is so evident? But what can I do better, Saturn, on these days of pleasure, which your son himself has consecrated to you in compensation for the heaven from which he ejected you? Would you have me write of Thebes, or of Troy, or of the crimes of Mycenae? You reply, 'Play with nuts.' But I don't want to waste even nuts. reader, you may finish this book wherever you please, every subject is completed in a couple of lines."
Gifts listed include a sausage, a parrot, a pastry phallus and even "a barbarian basket ... from the painted Britons" but, then as now, some gifts were unwanted. Catullus's thank-you letter to his friend, Calvus, is hardly effusive:
"If I did not love you more than my eyes, most delightful Calvus, for your gift I should hate you ... for what have I done, or what have I said, that you should torment me so vilely with these poets? Great gods, what a horrible and accursed book ... you have sent to your Catullus, that he might die of boredom the livelong day of the Saturnalia, choicest of days."
Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores and An Accidental King, and Omphalos are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon.
You might like to look at these posts by my fellow authors participating in this seasonal blog-hop:
- Helen Hollick : A little light relief concerning those dark reviews! Plus a Giveaway Prize
- Prue Batten : Casting Light....
- Alison Morton Shedding light on the Roman dusk - Plus a Giveaway Prize!
- Anna Belfrage Let there be light!
- Beth Elliott : Steering by the Stars. Stratford Canning in Constantinople, 1810/12
- Melanie Spiller : Lux Aeterna, the chant of eternal light
- Janet Reedman The Winter Solstice Monuments
- Petrea Burchard : Darkness - how did people of the past cope with the dark? Plus a Giveaway Prize!
- Richard Denning : The Darkest Years of the Dark Ages: what do we really know? Plus a Giveaway Prize!
- Pauline Barclay : Shedding Light on a Traditional Pie
- David Ebsworth : Propaganda in the Spanish Civil War
- David Pilling : Greek Fire - Plus a Giveaway Prize!
- Debbie Young : Fear of the Dark
- Derek Birks : Lies, Damned Lies and … Chronicles
- Mark Patton : Casting Light on Saturnalia
- Tim Hodkinson : Soltice@Newgrange
- Wendy Percival : Ancestors in the Spotlight
- Judy Ridgley : Santa and his elves Plus a Giveaway Prize
- Suzanne McLeod : The Dark of the Moon
- Katherine Bone : Admiral Nelson, A Light in Dark Times
- Christina Courtenay : The Darkest Night of the Year
- Edward James : The secret life of Christopher Columbus; Which Way to Paradise?
- Janis Pegrum Smith : Into The Light - A Short Story
- Julian Stockwin : Ghost Ships - Plus a Giveaway Present
- Manda Scott : Dark into Light - Mithras, and the older gods
- Pat Bracewell Anglo-Saxon Art: Splendor in the Dark
- Lucienne Boyce : We will have a fire - 18th Century protests against enclosure
- Nicole Evelina What Lurks Beneath Glastonbury Abbey?
- Sky Purington : How the Celts Cast Light on Current American Christmas Traditions
- Stuart MacAllister (Sir Read A Lot) : The Darkness of Depression