Five things the Romans did at Christmas
But they did have a big festival in late December for the god Saturn (god of sowing, it is often said – but for most urban Romans his temple in the Forum was best known because it doubled as the state treasury).
And there are lots of things about this festival – the Saturnalia – that should ring a (Christmas) bell.
1) A big dinner. On 17 December, there was a great banquet at which the gods -- or statues of them at any rate -- joined in. And it was a day of release for Saturn himself, because the woollen threads which bound the feet of his statue together were cut or loosened. No, don’t ask me why: I haven’t a clue. But it’s another nice addition to the list of very weird things the Romans did.
And next . . .
2) Present giving. The real Christmas-like bit was not what happened at the temple, but what went on at home and throughout the city (where there was more eating, drinking and general wildness). The week or so that followed was a time when people gave each other presents. In fact, there is a whole book of short verses by Martial, supposedly to go on the ancient equivalent of gift-tags.
3) Time off for the workers. This was the case even for the slaves, who sometimes had dinner waited on by their masters (a custom horribly reminiscent of those awful carnivalesque office dinners, where the managers swap places with the kitchen and cleaning staff, and serve the food – and everyone feels dead embarrassed).
4) It all got longer and longer. Just like now (when my university seems to shut down for almost a fortnight), the whole thing expanded. That sober party-pooper the emperor Augustus tried to limit it to three days, without much long term success – it was soon taking up more than a week.
5) Mean Scrooges and upper-class kill-joys. A few Roman writers enter into the spirit of the occasion. Catullus, for example, called it “the best of days”. But mostly they were supercilious lot, complaining about the forced jollity and the forced shut-down (just like me . . .!). The philosopher Seneca tut-tuts about all the dissipation and fact that you cant get any public business done. The younger Pliny loftily takes himself off to the attic to get on with his work (he doesn’t want to put a dampener on the slaves’ fun – but, more to the point, he doesn’t want to be disturbed by their rowdiness). And don’t imagine that the upstairs-downstairs divide was much lessened by the carnival. There’s a nice passage in Petronius’ Satyrica where a slave steps out of line and is sharply reminded that it’s not December.
So is this the real origin of “our” Christmas? Well, lots of people have imagined that the early Christians grafted their festivities onto an old pagan ritual. Maybe they did. But there honestly is no evidence for it, beyond the rough coincidence of dates. And, in fact, it was not until a few centuries after Jesus’ birth had got fixed onto 25 December that we see signs of much Christmas merrymaking. In the middle of the sixth century they still thought it necessary to forbid fasting on Christmas day – a prohibition which kind of over-achieved!