Little Details: io Saturnalia!

By Katherine Bielawa Stamper

Deck the halls with laurel and evergreen. Hang mistletoe, invoking the mystery of this ancient symbol of fertility. Place a candle in your window, bringing light to the darkness. Jangle jingle bells, warding off evil spirits. Sing songs. Make merry. Suspend work. Give gifts. Feast in a mildly gluttonous way. Imbibe spiced and spirited libations.

In this season of celebration, I offer the salutation “io Saturnalia!” while reflecting on the roots of our Christmas traditions. Saturnalia, an ancient Roman festival, celebrated Saturn, a god of agriculture. The Romans hosted a bevy of gods and goddesses in their polytheistic pantheon.

Saturnalia, a festival of light, presaged the winter solstice. The feast lasted from Dec. 17 to Dec. 23. The last day of the festival, Dec. 23, was reserved for gift-giving. Common presents included pottery, wax figurines, candles and even joke gifts. Christianity’s appearance and spread within Roman society eventually overtook pagan gods and rituals. That said, proponents of Christianity integrated local customs—including pagan rituals—in an effort to further their evangelical mission.

Pope Julius I (reign: 337-302 AD) successfully Christianized the pagan holiday when he declared Jesus’ birthday to have been Dec. 25. Before that time, Jesus’ birth was a bit of a “floating” holiday, in a historical sense.

Holidays do not simply happen. They evolve over time. They adjust to social and political conditions. They absorb bits and pieces of the contemporary. They cling to and cast off certain aspects of tradition. Remember those silver Christmas trees of the 1970s, made of plastic?

We have more than the Romans to thank for our Christmas holiday traditions. Ancient Druids blessed logs and burned them for twelve days during the winter solstice. Our Christmas season officially ends on the Feast of the Epiphany, or Twelfth Night. Does this sound reminiscent of the song Twelve Days of Christmas? It should.

Vikings had their Yule log. Odin, the Norse god, is thought to be one of many inspirations for Santa Claus. St. Nicholas (270-343), also called Nikolaos of Myra, shares the stage as a source of origin for the chubby fellow with rosy cheeks, white beard, generous girth and a sack filled with toys.

British Parliament outlawed Christmas in 1647 in the midst of England’s Civil War. Caroling and gift-giving were forbidden as “heathen” practices.

The Puritans who came to America for religious freedom were not a particularly tolerant bunch. They forbade Christmas trees.

Queen Victoria (1819-1901) receives some credit for rekindling Christmas traditions in England. She married Prince Albert of Germany in 1840. Albert brought with him the German tradition of a brightly decorated Christmas tree.

Legend maintains that, each Christmas, an evergreen was brought to the Royal Family’s living quarters at Windsor Castle. Victoria and Albert decorated the tree themselves, adorning it with candles and gingerbread cookies before inviting their children in to witness the pine-scented splendor all aglow. Is it any surprise that Charles’ Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” was published as the holiday experienced renewed interest in merry old England?

I’ve been to Christmas and Chanukah celebrations which bring light to this, the darkest time of our year. With a bow to the past and our shared pagan roots, I wish you “io Saturnalia,” Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

Katherine Bielawa Stamper, a Williston resident, was a 2013 finalist for the Coolidge Prize for Journalism. Reader comments are welcome at or