The title of this post is misleading; Caesar and his friends lived decades before the birth of Christ so could not have celebrated it. But they did celebrate a festival in December around the time of Christmas and it was called Saturnalia in honor of Saturn, the god of agriculture during “The Golden Age”. In the middle of the fourth century A.D. the Saturnalia and celebration of Christ’s birth grew together and some of the customs from the pagan festival can be recognized in our Christmas celebrations today. In some small way, therefore, Caesar and his friends did enjoy Christmas.
Saturnalia was a celebration of the solstice and the most popular and biggest of ancient Rome. Beginning on December 17th it lasted from one to seven days depending on the ruler of Rome but in Caesar’s time lasted seven days until December 23rd. The festival started with a public holiday with the sacrifice of pigs at the temple of Saturn followed by a public banquet. Private celebrations of various sorts were held on subsequent days including sumptuous meals with plenty of wine and sweets in human form (precursors of gingerbread men?). Masters changed places where their slaves and waited on them at dinner. One person was chosen as Saturnalian king who could gave out absurd orders that had to be followed by all. Roman men put aside their togas and wore more casual garments and including a pilleus, a conical felt hat. Decorations included boughs of laurel and green trees as well as candles and lamps. Gambling and dice-playing, normally frowned upon, were enjoyed even by slaves and children. Visiting friends, singing in the streets (caroling?) were popular and a general feeling of merriment prevailed. Gifts were exchanged and could be costly or very inexpensive. They included money, candles, food, clothing, books, pets, perfume, and statues. As might be expected, shopping for gifts became important and the Roman writer Seneca complained that the shopping time had gone from one month, December, to an all year activity. Hummm, sound familiar?
Of course, all was not fun and games. With drunkenness came unruly behavior, and there were many unforgiveable crimes committed during Saturnalia. Some practices like gift giving were banned by the Catholic Church during the middle ages, and the puritans banned Christmas between 1659 and 1681 because of its pagan origin. For two thousand years December has been the time of celebration for many people. Will it stop? Decline? Or continue to grow?