Most folks, including even the ancient Romans, have gotten excited about December for as long as there’s been one, since it brings the old year to a close and ushers in new beginnings. Rome’s oldest calendar contained only about 300 days and 10 months, and they called their last month simply “the 10th,” Latin “December,” as in DECIMal, DECIMate, and even DIME (a 10th of a dollar). Once they had figured out that the earth’s trip around the sun actually took something like 365 days, the tradition-minded Romans eventually positioned the requisite two additional months, January and February, at the beginning of the calendar, not at the end as they did at first, but persisted in labeling their 12th month “10th.”
Like the rest of the year, December in Rome was marked by lots of holidays, with a dozen or so festivals that totaled more than 20 days. Christmas was not among them, however, until its first known observance some 350 years after Christ’s birth, the exact date of which was debated even in antiquity. Long before that the most anticipated of the month’s events and perhaps the best known of all Roman holidays was the week-long Saturnalia, which began on the 17th and extended through the winter solstice on the 23rd. Honoring the primitive agricultural deity Saturnus, for whom SATURday and the planet SATURN were named, state-sponsored festivities included sacrifices at the god’s temple (which also housed the Roman treasury) and lavish public banqueting. Schools and government offices were closed.
Merriment continued throughout the week, with gift-giving, feasting, and often raucous parties where social norms were gleefully subverted, gambling (usually prohibited) was allowed, and, in a playful reversal of roles, slaves were permitted to dine with their masters, poke fun at them, and even demand to be served by them at table. As paganism gave way to Christianity, a number of the Saturnalia’s traditions, including festive meals, the burning of wax candles, and exchange of ceramic figurines and other gifts, were absorbed into the traditions of Christmas.
Two days after the end of Saturnalia, on December 25th, the Romans observed the birthday of the major imperial deity “Deus Sol Invictus” (as in DEIfy/SOLar/INVINCible), the “Unconquered Sun-god,” whose resurgence on the winter SOLstice initiated the daily increase in the hours of sunlight. As with the Saturnalia, sacraments associated with the sun god gradually merged with early Christian rites, as more and more pagans were converted to Christianity — declared the official state religion by the emperor Theodosius in 380 A.D. Historians are not agreed on whether December 25th was designated first as the birthday of Christ or of Sol Invictus (whose cult had been largely imported to Rome from Syria), but certainly the rituals were ultimately syncretized.
In the Roman Empire, New Year’s partiers waited until the first day of January, named for Janus, the two-faced god of beginnings and endings, who looked back to the old year and forward to the new. But in the U.S. and most modern cultures, we opt for one last December fling, on New Year’s Eve — gleefully proclaimed by some tipplers as “National Champagne Day.” There will doubtless be bubbly carousing throughout the country this coming 31st. Here’s hoping, dear reader, that we will all have much cause for celebrating, both during these holidays and throughout what Rome called the “annus novus” (think ANNual/NOVice), the invincibly sunny new year to come.
— Rick LaFleur is retired from 40 years of teaching Latin language and literature at the University of Georgia, which during his tenure came to have the largest Latin enrollment of all of the nation’s colleges and universities; his latest book is “Ubi Fera Sunt,” a lively, lovingly wrought translation into classical Latin of Maurice Sendak’s classic, “Where the Wild Things Are,” ranked first on TIME magazine’s 2015 list of the top 100 children’s books of all time.