Chester is a city which is rich in history – and much of that history can be traced back to when it was first established by the Romans, as a fortress from which to wage war against the uncouth locals to the north and from which to eventually launch an invading fleet against the even more uncouth Celtic tribes to the east in what is now Ireland.
The city’s Roman heritage is much in evidence throughout the year – significant dates on the Roman calendar are each afforded some level of ceremony by the city’s dedicated tribe of Roman re-enactment enthusiasts. This is especially true during Christmas time – which coincides with the pagan festival of Saturnalia to which Christmas owes its origins.
Every year, Chester sees and enthusiastic procession of Romans through the city centre. This year it’s set to take place on the 17th of December. It’s set to be as vibrant and rich in tradition as any Christmas Party in Cheshire!
If you’d like an idea of what to expect, take a look at this video, which demonstrates the parade of a few years ago. If you’re a fan of the television series Game of Thrones, you might recognise some of the rhetoric – and that’s no coincidence, since the series’ author, George RR Martin, is a keen student of military history – including that of Rome.
But what did the Romans really get up to on Saturnalia and what does any of it have to do with the winter festival we know and love today? Let’s take a look.
What is Saturnalia?
Saturnalia is a Roman harvest festival, during which the populace would proclaim their devotion at the temple of Saturn, the God of the harvest. It was a riotous week-long celebration at the end of December, during which there would be laughing, singing, drinking, and much rejoicing. For one meal, slaves would sit at the head of the table and be waited upon by their masters!
But like all good things, Saturnalia had to one day come to an end. When Romans began to convert to Christianity – lured, to no small extent, by the promise of eternal bliss – society faced a dilemma. They wanted to adopt the new religion, but they didn’t want to give up the old festivities. The period following Constantine’s conversion saw tensions escalate between the Christian elite and the pagan traditionalists.
The Roman authorities wanted to make Christianity the new state religion, but to impose a ban on pagan festivals like Saturnalia would have been unthinkably incendiary. And so it was decided instead that the festival be reborn as a Christian one.
What have the Romans ever done for us?
Santa Claus, Christmas trees and cracker-pulling are all undoubtedly secular traditions. But as well as considering the new developments that have come since Christmas was first conceived of, there are a few Christmas traditions whose roots extend to pre-Christian pagan society. Let’s take a look at how the Romans might have practiced some of the traditions we partake in today.
According to the most reliable accounts, the first Christmas cracker was probably developed in Victorian London. But the contents of those crackers can be traced back a great deal longer – both the paper hat and the joke are traditions that date back millennia. Romans celebrating Saturnalia would don elaborate, festive headgear whilst the festival was going on. During the festival, lecturing was forbidden – unless the lectures were delivered in a jocular, playful tone – a tradition carried still by the traditionally dreadful joke found in the modern Christmas Cracker.
It should perhaps come as no surprise that communal singing is an old, old practice. Romans would gather in the streets and sing songs in praise of the Roman gods and of Rome itself. Whilst the subjects of these songs has evolved over time, the practice of singing in the street remains as healthy as ever.
During Saturnalia, Romans would exchange gifts with one another. Though this process would be quite unlike the heavily commercialised one we experience today, the fact remains that we owe this beloved practice to the Romans.
There have been attempts to purge these pagan elements from Christmas in the time since – most notably by Cromwell’s puritan parliament, which attempted to ban Christmas celebrations in church – a widely ridiculed and ignored piece of legislation, which was overturned at the Restoration.
Christmas owes as much to the ancient Romans as Chester itself does, and that influence is likely to be felt for many years to come. Why not commemorate that tradition by coming down to Chester on the 17th of December, and witnessing the Saturnalia celebrations for yourself? Locals have no excuse for missing out – but fans of Roman culture and history might take advantage of the many excellent hotels in Cheshire and make a weekend of it!