Happy Saturnalia!

Tuesday 17 December 2013

Christmas (a.k.a. the Feast of the Nativity) is pre-dated by two major pagan festivals, the Roman Saturnalia and the Viking Yule. Saturnalia is well-known for its turning of the established order on its head, with servants becoming the masters and vice versa. December 17 is the actual date when the Ancient Roman festival - held in honour of the god Saturn, the god of agriculture - began, running until December 23.

Its legacy lived on in the Medieval Christmas when a Lord of Misrule was appointed to oversee the often noisily and disorderly festive celebrations. And its legacy lives on today in modern pantomimes which still involve a reversal of fortunes; Cinderella marries her prince while poor Jack makes a million. This swapping of roles didn’t just apply to master-servant relationships either, but also to traditional gender roles.

The Romans sang ritual songs during the feast of Saturnalia while the mead halls of the Norse would have rung to the sound of sagas being sung around the burning Yule log. During the festival of Saturnalia, people decorated trees with small pieces of metal. Our Roman ancestors also considered evergreens lucky and during the feast of Saturnalia decorated their homes with boughs of holly and the like, believing that both brought good luck, while mistletoe was a symbol of peace. Those participating in the annual Saturnalia celebrations even wore hats, which is part of the reason why we find paper crowns hidden in the crackers we pull at Christmas dinner.

It is thought that these midwinter festivals were transformed into Christmas celebrations after the arrival of Saint Augustine in England, at the end of the 6th century, and the subsequent widespread adoption of Christianity by the British. Certainly Christmas Day AD 598 was marked by a spectacular event, when more than 10,000 Englishmen were baptised as Christians.

So... Happy Saturnalia!


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