The 17th of December marks the beginning of a Roman pagan festival called Saturnalia. Saturnalia lasted three to seven days, honouring Saturn, the God of agriculture, celebrating a good harvest in spring. Saturnalia was considered the liveliest event of the year and with it being a public religious event, all were able to attend including women, children, and even salves. Festival food included roasted pig, sausages, fried vegetables, fresh fruit, nuts and of course drinks! Some of their favorite drinks included hot mulled and spiced wine or Mulsum, a drink made from wine and honey. While hot wine may seem a bit strange for us currently, it was more common in ancient Rome, especially as it would be winter during this celebration. The famous poet Catullus described it as being the best time. Additionally, it was customary to greet people with “Io Saturnalia” during this festival.
Saturnalia has had lasting effect on the world and has even influenced our very own Christmas. Saturnalia is celebrated near the winter solstice and is believed to be a big source of lots of modern-day Christmas traditions and decorations, such as wreaths, feasts and gifts. Much like Christmas day is public a holiday for us, Saturnalia was a public holiday for the Romans, they stopped all schools, courts of law and work, including slaves. In terms of décor, the Romans spread greenery throughout their homes such as wreathes. While the Christmas tree originates from Germany, it still has that association of nature in the home that Saturnalia has. Do you dress up for Christmas? Well guess what, so did the Romans. During Saturnalia they forgo their normal traditional togas and replaced them with bright colourful clothing for the celebration period. The days of this celebration were spent dancing, feasting, socializing and even gambling. The Romans also gave out gifts, commonly of a cerei, a wax taper candle that signified the light coming back after the winter solstice. Other gifts given during Saturnalia was on the last day, on this they gave out little clay/terracotta figurines, known as signillaria. It is speculated that this is a potential influence on the gift giving during current Christmas traditions.