From Saturnalia to Christmas Day in the Workhouse

On 16 December 2014 we were treated to a talk by Sue Berry entitled “‘Tis the Season to be Merry’…… from Saturnalia to Christmas Day in the Workhouse”.

How little has changed over the centuries: we all know how to celebrate!

Saturnalia was an ancient Roman festival in honour of the deity Saturn, initially held on 17 December and later festivities were extended to 23 December.


Io Saturnalia. From one extreme…

The salutation ‘lo Saturnalia’ was used as a seasonal greeting. Festivities included public banquets with a carnival atmosphere and the levelling of the social hierarchy, where masters provided table service for their slaves and purportedly slaves were permitted to disrespect their masters. It is not mentioned whether punishment was meted out following the celebrations!!

Rampant overeating, drunkenness and wild revelry became the rule: sobriety the exception! Is this not reminiscent of the twenty first century – the carnival atmosphere, the excesses, and drunkenness that we refer to as pubbing and clubbing! On Sigillaria, the last day of Saturnalia, gifts were exchanged to show either friendship or as a gratuity by the ‘boss’. Today we exchange gifts on Christmas Day.

Over the centuries there were many changes made to the celebration, even including reportedly the trial of Father Christmas in 1686 for enticing drunkenness, gluttony and idleness! He was found innocent and acquitted. Those of you who still believe in Father Christmas must be breathing a sigh of relief!

Christmas Day in the Workhouse

…to the other. Christmas Day in the Workhouse.

In the Victorian times we saw local benefactors distributing gifts to their employees, or community. For some, these charitable acts kept the elderly and the unemployed out of the dreaded workhouse. However, although the workhouse was abolished in the first half of the twentieth century, we still see benefactors today (the general public) donating food to families who are living in poverty and reliant on food banks to celebrate Christmas. Is that not a touch of irony!!

On a lighter note I want to share an invitation I received via email:

‘Feel like you want to party? Feel like you want to hold forth about our consumerist society while shaking your booty at the same time? Feel like life is short and where’s the glass?’

Rock on Saturnalia!

Maxine Courage