The Evolution of Winter Holidays: From Saturnalia to the Christmas Season

By Anastasia Kaliabakos

The months of November and December are typicallyconsidered to be the height of the “holiday season,” as people eagerly await popular holidays such as Thanksgiving,Chanukah, and Christmas. Celebrating these types of holidays, seems to be quite an integral part ofsome people’s culture and a way to wrap up the calendar year. But how long have holidays and festivals played a role in society? Looking back two thousand years ago, we can see how popular celebrations contributed to both civic enthusiasm and engagement in places like Rome and Ancient Greece.

A DEPICTION OF A SATURNALIAN offering in Ancient Rome.

Saturnalia was an ancient Roman festival held in mid to late December. As the name suggests, this holiday celebrated the god Saturn (or, in Latin, “Saturnus”), who, in the Roman tradition, was the deity of sowing and agriculture. Saturn was said to have ruled the world during the Golden Age, which was a time when humans walked the earth free of work obligations in a state of innocence. A god known for his sense of justice and character, Saturn decreed that there were to be no slaves under his rule, or even private property– all people were entirely equal and had the same opportunities. The holiday was mostly held in the Roman Forum, specifically at the Temple of Saturn. At this temple, people celebrated by dedicating various sacrifices and offerings to the god. Typically, these were animal sacrifices, but, it is also said that Saturn additionally received gladiators killed in fights or games as offerings. This practice changed later on as the festival developed, but this specific tradition went back to Saturn’s lesser known connection with the underworld. Another significant aspect of Saturnalia was the temporary reversal of the common social hierarchy. During Saturnalia, slaves were permitted to dine with their masters, since everyone was considered equal for the few days that the festival lasted. Additionally, slaves were even able to disrespect their “superiors” without fear of punishment from them. This is probably the most well-known part of the holiday—countless famous authors, poets, and historians have discussed it in detail (like Horace, Catullus, and Pliny). There was also a specific day set aside for gift giving called Sigillaria. Special wax figures and toys were made especially for this day so that monetary value and status would not have a role in the gift-giving. Saturnalia remained a popular holiday into the 4th century A.D. When the Roman Empire ultimately came under Christian rule, many of Saturnalia’s traditions morphed into some of the seasonal celebrations associated with Christmas and the New Year.

A BANQUET HELD DURING the celebrations of Saturnalia. Image credit: Saturnalia (1793) Antoine Callet/Wikipedia.

A significant festival that took place in the winter in Ancient Greece was called Haloa, or Haloea. This celebration took place annually after the first harvest was over. An interesting fact about this festival is that all women were expected to attend this event, but men were excluded; however, the men had to pay for the women’s expenses during the holiday’s festivities. Although the celebrations varied depending on the region of Greece, authors recorded that they were all consistent in enthusiasm and participation. Attendance was very integral to the fabric of Greek society at the time. Like Saturnalia, there were animal sacrifices, offerings, and banquets. The women at the festival made cakes together and expressed themselves more freely than they were allowed to during other times of the year since men were not very involved in the celebrations. The Greeks thought that Haloea was sacred to Poseidon, but even more so to Dionysus. The influence of Dionysus and the importance of wine to Greek cult activity really contributed to who was considered the primary god while celebrations and sacrifices ensued. Finally, although Haloea was one of the most talked-about Greek festivals, very few accurate records of the specific characteristics and rituals of the celebrations have survived or were written—most likely because it was a festival predominantly for women to participate in. However, aforementioned Roman Saturnalias were indeed influenced by Greek festivals like Haloea.

As one can see, festivals and holidays have been avenues for people to come together in celebration and joy for millenia. Although this season may be different from previous years, the holiday spirit will nevertheless persist. We still must count our blessings, enjoy one another’s company—whether that be in person or virtually—and make the most of our modern winter holidays.

Anastasia Kaliabakos is a graduate of the Brearley School and is currently a Presidential Scholar at the College of the Holy Cross majoring in Classics. She is a Features Editor for Holy Cross’ newspaper, The Spire, Associate Editor of the Parnassus Classical Journal, author of Milkshake: A Very Special Pony, and recipient of the 2019 NYC Scholastic Writing Award. Anastasia has contributed to WestView News since 2018.

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