Think for a moment, and imagine this scene:
Ancient Romans running around in total revelry during the darkest period of the year. There’s gambling, exorbitant feasts, extreme partying, people wearing a funny shaped red hat. They are festive, hopeful, awaiting the return of the sun and its accompanying warmth and the harvest that will eventually come. All of this activity seems to be a scene of utter chaos. For the ancients though, there was no guarantee of survival, it took careful planning and lots of hope.
Thus was the Saturnalia Festival, usually held in honour of the God Saturn from December 17th to about December 24th (depending on when in history you examine). And yet, as strange as this festival may seem to us today, it should actually be very familiar to us. That is because the origins of our celebrations today can be traced back to this seemingly foreign holiday. But to modern Christianity, it’s Christmas Time! The most wonderful time of the year.
So, let’s start this next section off with the jolly big man himself, Santa Claus. A lot of the imagery that describes Santa is lifted from various depictions of Saturn and the Saturnalia itself. (Also from the Norse God Woden) For example, the red “Santa” hats? These allude to the pilleus, sometimes likened to the Phrygian cap, worn during this time of year. In manumission rites, freed men (liberti) in ancient Rome also wore hats like this to symbolize their new social status. The Phrygian cap and the Pilleus are slightly different. The pilleus was a felt cap, often referred to as a brimless petasos type of hat while the Phrygian cap came from central Anatolia, indeed from Phrygia, and evolved into the “liberty cap” because of its popularity during the Saturnalia. Most likely the confusion stems from the notion that the pilleus was reserved for freed men while the Phrygian cap, with a slightly different appearance, would have held a different reference for the proper Roman folks.
But why the significance of the hat during this holiday festival? Since the Saturnalia was commemorating the golden age brought about by Saturn’s rule, all of mankind was on equal footing with one another. There was no need for toil and thus, no need to create class systems to differentiate one from another.
To symbolize this egalitarian (all people are equal) age, the Romans would reverse the social order, allowing for masters to serve slaves, and for the slaves to get a bit of a reprieve from their work. This was symbolized through the adornment of the red pileus, which we currently see today in our culture reflected back to us in the persona of our very own Santa Claus.
History doesn’t ignore this fact as even during the French Renaissance, those pushing for social and political change for the three estate system, wore the same red hats to symbolize their brotherhood in freedom. In fact, it was typically found worn by the “sans culottes,” one of the main factions behind the revolution in France. Perhaps this offers a strong reason why the various movie versions of Les Miserables is always released during the Christmas season.
What about the traditions associated with Santa Claus? Millions of children every year are placed upon the lap of Santa Claus and told to explain to Santa what each of them would like to have for Christmas. If a little boy or girl has been labeled “nice” by this official of Christmas, then all of their wishes would be granted. Here, we find a play by Lucian called the Saturnalia that recounts a discussion between Cronus and a priest of his. Cronus – Kronos, Chronos, etc. – the Greek god was syncretized with Saturn, the Roman version. It satirizes the idea of asking the gods for blessings as Cronus reminds his priest that he only rules for a week and the rest of the year Zeus is in constant rule.
In many ways the cheerful and friendly ho, ho, ho, bearded figure of Santa Claus is derived from depictions of Saturn. The god was usually envisioned as bearded and imbued with a happy, go-lucky spirit. He was also associated with the holly branch, a typical feature of the holiday season. Even the colours of the holly branch – red and green – are tethered to the iconography of this time of year and are associated with the red of sacrifice and the green of renewal. There were munera, or gladiatorial contests, held in honor of Saturn and we should probably remember the myth that this god (Saturn/Cronus) was known for eating his own children and this may present a dark side to this story – the story of human sacrifice.
For now though, let’s look at the extensive similarities between the Saturnalia Festival and our own celebrations for this time of year. Note the various private dinners we are all running around and planning for – just as the Romans did. The anxiety over getting the perfect gift for our loved ones – just as the Romans did. Exchanging gifts with one another - just as the Romans did. The children would receive little figurines much like children receive action figures or dolls during this time of year. The music selection changes for us – just as the Romans did during this time of year. They would select poetry and music to share with one another.
The Saturnalia was a time to recognize that there was a commonality among all. We must work and toil for our survival but during this darkest part of the year, we should embrace hope and celebrate life - together as one humanity. Peace and prosperity was the collective wish of all – as true during those ancient days just as it is now. Because of wrongful translations, accidental and intentional, the Romans seemed to be only barbarians. But much of what we have today, is a benefit from the ancient Greeks and Romans.
So, as we rush around trying to make everything perfect this time of year let’s remember that we are carrying on the same traditions as our ancient forefathers. As old as perhaps time itself is the wish that we can all live in peace and in prosperity surrounded by our loved ones – as we hope to, in some small way, return life on this planet to a golden age where all of mankind can live as brothers and sisters - spiritually, emotionally, and physically. Happy Holidays or Merry Xmas does not take the Christ out of Christmas in any way. Regardless of what some modern Christians think. In fact, this celebration (always involving Dec 25th) was around long before Christianity.
Just a thought …
~Justin Taylor, ORDM., OCP., DM.