Roman Santa

24 Dec 2016

At this time of year we always get articles out there on the Christmas star or on the pagan roots of the festivities and this year there has witnessed a regurgitation of quite a bit of this kind of stocking filler in the dead tree press and online. At one of the more interesting web sites, although there are too many adverts which seem to clog it up, ... which is all about those traditions that have survived from the Roman Empire period, absorbed into the Christian religion as a sort of by-product or add-on. In this instance, Saturnalia has a lot of things in common with some of the Christmas rituals preserved in Europe - but no doubt many other things have been discarded over the years. For example, Saturnalia involved the exchange of gifts and a grand meal (a forerunner of the Christmas turkey and roasted vegetables). Various attempts have been made to identify the Roman god with Santa Claus (otherwise St Nicholas) but the Ancient Origins writer points out that Saturn was renowned for eating his children (quite unlike podgy Santa Klaus stuffed with too much Christmas pudding). Mind you, Saturnalia also involved drinking lots of alcohol and playing games, dressing and reciting poetry (some of it risque). It was also an upside down world where roles in society were reversed - somewhat like the old English tradition of the Lord of Misrule. Both traditions involved masters and servants (even the slaves) swapping roles for a day, a tradition that survives in the military where the officer on duty has the task of serving tea laced with rum on Christmas morning to the lower ranks. Saturnalia was characterised by a relaxation in the social order but in a carnival atmosphere. This isn't part of present Christmas celebrations - although the head of the family may well wear a funny hat for the day. In Britain Saturnalia degenerated into alms giving, providing food for the poor and the elderly. Perhaps this is why we always have a couple of days near Christmas where the media focuses on the homeless - but ignores them for the rest of the year. So, from what was a licentious Roman festival, we now have a conscience salving act of giving to charities (the do good factor rides high). Having said that Christmas brings the best out of people in that they are bothered to give to the less fortunate and seek to ease the burden, temporarily, of others. This does not appear to be a feature of Saturnalia.

The Roman version of Saturnalia was in all probability shorn of a lot of its original unwholesome facets and we only have a sanitised version of the festivities. I suppose that is why it is easy to draw comparisons with Christmas - and no doubt the things people liked about the old festival were absorbed into the Christianised version. We all like gifts, and giving gifts, and we all like a big meal and some merriment. We also need to remember that in Roman times December 25th marked the winter solstice (now the 21st) and Saturnalia involved rituals leading up to that date in the calendar as the days shortened and then went into reverse, lengthening. The inference made by most writers is that Saturn had a connection with the Sun and the shortest day of the year. The solstice was seen as a victory by the sun over the forces of darkness - and here is the clue. One of the most important factors in the Exodus story are the days of darkness and this occurs in other folklore around the world, from Japan to northern Europe. The solstice is almost unnoticeable in some parts of the world so why was a big thing made about it - unless the sun at some stage was seen to be victorious over a period of darkness (days rather than weeks). A transition of the earth through a dense stream of meteoric material might cause such a period of darkness and emerging the other side of the stream of debris could be seen as a victory of the sun over the forces of evil. Obviously, this would have occurred long before the Romans celebrated Saturnalia which provides us with some idea of how long such traditions may go back into history (and prehistory). The fact that Christmas still has remnants of those traditions goes to show how indelible the original event must have been, leaving an imprint on generations of people that followed.

At ... (see also which of course is not a nativity scene in the sense we understand it in the modern world but it is interesting to note the similarities as another add-on to the Christmas story which could well have roots long before Christianity. It seems rock art dating back over 5000 years ago depicted a star in the east, an infant between parents and two animals, and an inference that the infant had descended from the sky. Well, this is one of those things that could be interpreted in all kinds of ways and the idea of a young god born to an older god (and his female consort) occurs in many myths around the world, not least in ancient Egypt. We can safely say this is not a nativity scene as the action is in the sky rather than in a human environment. It was found on the ceiling of a rock shelter in the Sahara, between the Nile and the Gilf Kebir Plateau, by geologist Marco Morelli. He discovered it in 2005 but said nothing publicly but he must have been thinking about the association with Christmas as he released the information in the run up to Christmas 2016. Was the nativity scene appropriated from older traditions? There is no reason why not and no reason why something that originally occurred in the sky was rationalised much later. After all, even in the Bible the Canaanite god El was replaced by a son (or sons) of El - hence the golden calf that occurs in the Exodus story. The golden calf was the offspring of the bull god - a common theme in the ancient Middle East and Levant. These traditions have a very long pedigree and Christmas always seems to have them taken down from the shelf, dusted down, and used to enlighten a new group of young people. It provides us all with a connection with our ancestors and what they may have seen or have preserved in folklore and religious ritual for posterity.