Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanza, whatever your ‘Reason for the Season’, most of the December holiday traditions that we celebrate today can be traced back to the Ancient Roman holiday of Saturnalia (with a healthy dose of inspiration from the Vikings). From tree decorations, wreaths, ornaments, boughs of holly, carolling (albeit with more clothes and less rude songs these days), gift-giving, and even gingerbread men, most of what we identify as ‘Christmas’ has roots going back thousands of years.
So what was Saturnalia?
The fact is, the Romans loved festivals, and ‘officially’, Saturnalia commemorated the winter solstice, as well as honouring Saturn, the god of agriculture, wealth, and liberation. Most Roman holidays were never confined to a single day, and Saturnalia was a week-long celebration, lasting from the 17th to either the 23rd or 24th of December. Described by the Latin poet, Catullus, as ‘The Best of Days’, it was the most popular holiday of the Roman calendar, attested by the fact that many of its traditions still survive to this day.
Its exact date of origin is unknown, though references to the holiday are made as early as the 4th century B.C. Like other holidays and festivals, at its core, Saturnalia was a religious observance. Albeit, most of the religious aspects were only observed on the first day.
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