Imagine the scene: ancient Romans running around in total revelry during the darkest period of the year. Gambling, banquets, unusual signs of the social order upheaved simply by wearing a funny shaped red hat. They are festive, hopeful, awaiting the return of the sun and its accompanying warmth – all of this emerging from what seems to be a scene of utter chaos. For the ancients, there was no guarantee of survival, it took careful planning and lots of hope.
Thus was the Saturnalia, usually held as a festival honoring the god Saturn from December 17th to about December 24th (depending on when in history you examine its rites). And yet, as strange as this festival may seem to us today, it is quite familiar to us. That is because the origins of our celebrations today can trace back to this seemingly foreign holiday.
Let’s focus on the jolly man himself, Santa Claus. A lot of the imagery that describes Santa is lifted from various depictions of Saturn and the Saturnalia itself. 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. (Just a fashion note: 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 Roman audience.)
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, man 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 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 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 made to explain to Santa what each wants 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 is a play by Lucian called the Saturnalia that recounts a discussion between Cronus and a priest of his. (Recall that 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 rules.
In many ways the jovial, 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 colors 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 mustn’t forget that the god 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 us contemplate the extensive similarities between the Saturnalia and our celebrations 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 as they exchanged gifts with one another. The children would receive sigullaria, or little figurines much like children receive action figures or dolls during this time of year. We fuss over the music selection – just as the Romans did during this time of year selecting 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. Peace and prosperity was the collective wish of all – as true during those ancient days just as it is now. So, as we rush around trying to make everything perfect this time of year let us recall 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 men are brothers and equals. Let the fun begin!
For even more similarities to our own holiday celebrations, see Mary Beard’s article that details 5 things the Romans celebrated during this time of year.