If you set your time machine for December 2,000 years ago, and drop in on ancient Rome, what you see around you might make you check the gauges to make sure your timing is correct. Wreaths and swags of evergreen trimmed with red ribbons adorn statures and doorways. Togate Romans bustle about wishing each other greetings of the season and exchanging gifts. Some of the temples around us have stages set up for tableau or plays later in the afternoon. Tables set up in the public spaces of the Forum are redolent with roasted meats and the smell of barbecue hangs in the air. From the far side of the Palatine Hill, you can hear the cheers of a stadium full of fans at the day’s sporting event.  If you join the crowd of variously dressed commoners at the gates of one of the massive private homes, you might sneak a peek inside at tables laden with treats such as spiced sweetbreads and tables of gifts including candles, small statues and bags of coins.

It feels like Christmas!

But it can’t be Christmas. Whatever is happening in faraway Palestine at this moment, Romans won’t celebrate Christmas until Constantine coops the outlaw religion in the fourth century – several hundred years in the future if our time machine is properly set. A quick search flashes the answers across our contact lenses.

It’s Saturnalia!

Judith Geary

Judith Geary, author

The ancient Roman festival of the god Saturn shared many customs with the modern celebration of the Christmas season. Decorating with evergreen branches and red ribbon or yarn, gift giving, charity to the less fortunate, entertainment and sports are among the parallels. Early in the Republic, the Saturnalia was only about three days and was celebrated at the temple and within the household. By the time of the first century BCE in our calendar, it continued for over ten days. 

The Roman calendar celebrated many festivals, but Saturnalia was the longest and most festive. Sacrifices at the altar set up in front of the temple provided meat for the feasts. The fat from the organs was burned upon the altar and the flesh anointed with wine and spices (hence the sweet savor of barbecue.)  

Everyone was admitted to the Circus Maximus for chariot races and “wild beast hunts,” though as today certain seats were reserved for the upper classes. (Public executions and gladiator contests might be included between races, but the Coliseum and the excesses of the Empire are still in the future.) 

Rome was at heart a political society and aristocrats were at the center of a network of clients – dependents who could be depended on for support in the political arena and who depended on their patrons for support in business and commerce. Clients commonly visited their patron at dawn to receive a donative and any instructions for the day. Refreshments might be served and gifts given to seal the connection. Of course everything ramped up at Saturnalia.

Saturnalia grew to be a time of excess, when the social norms were turned upside down. Gambling with sheep’s knucklebones (early dice) was generally forbidden, but practiced openly during this time. Unique to the aristocratic households was the custom of the servants’ banquet on the opening night of Saturnalia. The master and his family served the family slaves, who were dressed in the master’s garments and reclined on his couches. A Saturnalia King from among the slaves directed the revelry, and could even order the master to entertain with singing or dancing if he chose. (The wise “King” understood, however that the upset was only for one night and revenge could take the rest of the year.) Today, we pay homage to these early customs with the “King of Revels” or “Prince of Fools” at Mardi Gras and similar festivals and by “tipping” those who provide service to use during the year.

Getorix by Judith Geary

Getorix by Judith Geary

So, with our connections to the past and present once more established, we can enter our time machine once again and return to our own time.

We step into the middle of an arena of screaming plebeians. For just a moment we’re sure we’ve really messed up our settings this time and leapt forward only a couple of centuries into the middle of the Coliseum. Then we notice the uniforms and realize it’s football.

Judith Geary, author of the Getorix series: The Eagle and the Bull & Games of the Underworld, Celtic adventure in ancient Rome.   Website www.judithgeary.com