Friday 7 December 2012

Roman Christmas - Saturnalia ...

Saturnalia, in Roman times, was the annual festival on 17th December celebrating the end of winter, which quickly expanded into a week of Misrule, feasting, partying, gambling, drinking, playing card games, and general cavorting around the town ...

Ruins of the Temple of Saturn
(eight columns to the far right) in 2010

They even dressed down – togas came off and bright tunics appeared with silly hats.  Misrule was a very debauched affair ... masters serving servants ... lawlessness prevailed briefly ...

... Roman courts were closed, and Roman law dictated that no-one could be punished for damaging property or injuring people during the weeklong celebration.

The festivities began when the Roman authorities chose “an enemy of the Roman people” to represent the “Lord of Misrule” – this poor victim was subjected to some rather unpleasant ‘pranks’ ...

Saturnalia by Ernesto Biondi (1909) in the
Buenos Aires Botanical Gardens
... at the festival’s conclusion the Roman authorities believed they were destroying the forces of darkness by brutally murdering this innocent – represented by gingerbread men biscuits today.

Surprisingly during Saturnalia the Romans did not over indulge – our main tradition the lavish and luxurious eating of a fine feast developed over the centuries as we relinquished Saturnalia, paganism and embraced the Christian faith.

However quite a few of the Roman traditions make their appearance in our Christmas of today ... gift giving (sometimes with little verse cards attached), carol singing, gingerbread men biscuits –as we know those had devilish connotations.
Dice players in a wall painting
from Pompeii

Christians adopted the Pagan tradition of tree worshiping, decorating their homes with greenery – ivy and mistletoe ... our Christmas tree today.

The forum was the town’s main meeting place where people would mingle, the theatre would show a variety of theatrical entertainments ... with street performers adding to the mix.

Roman foods
Although feasting did not occur – the wealthier Romans ate well ... banquets would consist of a variety of courses – but normal life was as we know it today ... revolving around the rhythms of manual labour (in the fields).

Breakfast was bread and fruit, a light lunch in the middle of the day consisting of thick porridge, bread, cheese, cold fish, meat and with humble vegetables ...

... while the main meal of the day was a three course dinner served in the late afternoon in the Triclinium, where diners reclined on three couches, arranged around a low dining table, and served from the kitchen within the villa.

A Roman Dinner

The wealthy, patriarchs and plebeians, would have kitchens, but most people, the freedmen (general plebeians), lived in apartments and they had to eat cold meals or buy hot food from the many take-away food shops. 

The slaves would get handouts of grain which they made into a porridge type gruel, while the freedmen ate this staple porridge supplemented by oil, the simpler vegetables and salt fish.

Stuffed Roasted Boar
Cooks in the homes of the wealthy patricians were valued household slaves – as it was exceedingly hard work - the evening meal often taking all day to prepare ... food being cooked in a brick oven, and was either boiled in a pot or roasted on a griddle over the flames.

Food was quite varied but depended on the seasons and availability – roasted meats: pigeons cooked inside chickens, wild boar or pigs stuffed with sausages made from extra meats and innards – waste not want not ...

Richer classes had starters of eggs, seafood or snails ... supplemented with cheeses, olives, lentils, sea urchins, molluscs, shrimp, salted anchovies ... with extra vegetables: kale, chard, nettles and sorrel.

Foods from plant sources

Pickled vegetables were readily available ... olives, chicory, cardoons, broccoli, asparagus, artichokes, leeks, carrots, turnips, parsnips, beets, peas, green beans, radishes, cauliflower, cabbages, lettuces and field greens, onions, cucumbers fennel, capers – early varieties of the types we eat today ...

The main dish usually consisted of meat – pork was the most popular – all parts being eaten; beef wasn’t very popular – cattle were working animals; geese, duck, chickens, peacocks and swans all featured ... sausages of various sorts were made.  Hares and rabbits were bred and eaten – hares less successfully.

Chickens hanging in a shop in Mexico
Fresh fish was usually only found at lunch times – they were difficult to fatten up ... though freshwater and saltwater ponds existed.  Fish sauce was the universal sauce added to everything ... when it was being made the production of garum was banned in the towns ... as the stench was unbelievable!  

The small sealed amphorae were distributed throughout the Empire and totally replaced salt as a condiment.  The remaining solids were sold as a kind of savoury spread ...

"The Mullus" harvesting pepper taken from a
French edition of The Travels of Marco Polo

Spices were imported on a large scale and used copiously ... pepper, saffron, cinnamon, herbs, cloves, nutmeg, ginger ...

Desserts would include plenty of fruits – fresh or dried – grapes, figs, dates, pomegranates, quinces, apples, apricots et al ... and the Romans loved walnuts, hazelnuts, almonds, chestnuts and pine nuts ...

Roman Honey Cakes
Roman bakers were famous for the many varieties of breads, rolls, fruit tarts, sweet buns and cakes ... cakes made of wheat and usually soaked in honey were often served.

Drinks were early types of wine, mixed with herbs and honey, early mead, strong raisin wine, matured spiced wine; beer was known but considered vulgar.  Sour wine mixed with water and herbs was a popular drink for the lower classes.

In some ways the Romans had the same choices we have today for our Christmas feast ... and our foods have evolved from those early beginnings.


Their entertainment was similar to ours today – even in this technological age – musicians, acrobats, poets or dancers .... dances were not usual, as it was considered improper and would not mix well with table manners ... although during the comissatio (a round of drinks) this habit was often disregarded.

Times have not really changed that much in two millennia ... different countries have evolved their own cultures out of those early beginnings ...

Our Christmas Pudding complete with holly
sprig - if the Romans had invented matches
 - then they too would have flamed it

Thankfully we don’t have to choose a Lord of Misrule – except as a revival of those early traditions enacted to remember our roots ... and I love that we don’t forget our history ... it’s made who we are ...

Happy Christmas preparations ... though I’ll still be around!

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

That's a lot of food. I'm not eating anything with a face staring at me though.
And the original celebrations sound like our Mardi Gras.

A Lady's Life said...

Ya I stop at pigs with faces lol
I am glad we have peaceful and beautiful celebrations for Christmas.
I am sorry the stores don;t put up displays for Christmas I used to love walking by and seeing trains and Santas work shop and animals and mary and Jesus They had it all and people would spend lots of time looking into the store windows with the children.

Optimistic Existentialist said...

I agree with Alex - the original celebrations DID celebtrate like our Mardi Gras. Great post Hilary! Very informative.

MunirGhiasuddin said...

That pomegranate reminds me of home. History is a lesson we should all try to remember, our own so we know where we came from and other people's so we can understand them better. Other cultures have always fascinated me. Thanks for writing. Cheers:)


Most informative Hilary, you do amaze me how you write such interesting post each week.
Wouldn't like the pig with face but all else seemed and look awesome.

Happy week-end.

Inger said...

I see the Romans ate a pretty healthy Mediterranean diet. As always, great information and en enjoyable post.

Chatty Crone said...

Very interesting. They didn't start gorging themselves until the Christian era? And man that was a lot of different foods there. Can't say much for the boar's head. Gosh you would think I would be so thin I am such a picky eater! We did have a pig roast once in the neighborhood with head on. Very enlightening. Thanks. sandie

Luanne G. Smith said...

What a fantastic post. I love reading about the origins of things we continue to incorporate into our holiday celebrations.

I enjoyed the Pompeii exhibit I went to in my town a few months back because I could see so many of the everyday household items that Romans used. Very advanced in many ways, with their portable ovens and indoor plumbing in some cases.

Old Kitty said...

Love how Christian holidays and celebrations (like Easter too!) have sprouted from more ancient and pagan roots! I think that's why I love putting up Christmas trees - it's definitely a link to these times!! Take care

Theresa Milstein said...

I'm passing on the Christmas pudding, but I'll totally try a Roman cake.

It's interesting to see how different cultures borrow ideas and foods from one another and start new traditions.

Interesting post full of delicious food pictures.

Janie Junebug said...

The boar looks scary. I don't think I want to eat anything that stares at me. And I'm glad we don't kill a Lord of Misrule. That would really have Bill O'Reilly complaining that we've taken the Christ out of Christmas. Unless, of course, we could figure out how to make Bill the Lord of Misrule . . . .


Manzanita said...

Good thing I just ate or I'd be looking through the fridge with all this wonderful food selection. But I'd never find food this good, for sure.

I like that boar or pig in the sea of grapes and grapes for the eyes. The pork sounds good. I hardly ever eat meat now but when I was growing up, I recall the marvelous flavor of pork. Always my favorite meat.

Romans really knew how to enjoy the holiday feasts. Great post, Hilary

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

@ Alex - well a selection thereof - sorry about the face .. I love spit-roasted pig .. The Mardi Gras connection sounds about right .. I'd love to visit one day ..

@ A Lady's Life .. sorry about the piggy! London has the most amazing displays .. the shops really do put on incredible window frontages - while inside ... just magical. Liberty, Fortnum and Mason, Harrods, Selfridges - always excel ..

@ Keith - I'm sure all festival celebrations would emulate each successive style ..

@ Munir - pomegranates .. I had a tree in South Africa. One day I'll visit India .. it's good to learn isn't it ..

@ Yvonne - many thanks .. just interested to learn and then post something that will interest everyone ..

@ Inger - sounds like a healthy diet doesn't it - depends which end of the spectrum you were born into ..

@ Sandie - I'm sure they gorged themselves .. but just not during Saturnalia. I love foods - but there's a good selection here - if it was a time for choosing. However pig roast is delicious ..

@ Luanne - I could have posted more Pompeii photos that would easily have fitted in - I'd love to visit one day. I hadn't realised they had portable ovens - but I guess the armies had them anyway .. the plumbing is incredible isn't it - and the town layouts ..

@ Old Kitty - it's so interesting to learn the reasons for things, and how those dates, rituals have stayed with us .. maybe with an odd tweak or two ..

I love Christmas trees too - they transform a room and a household.

@ Theresa - I love Christmas pudding, but those Roman cakes remind me of Greek delicacies ..

Cultures and traditions evolve don't they through the centuries - thankfully ours are kept alive .. and lots of food!

@ Janie - poor boar - but roasted pig is so delicious. Those murderous traditions are rather difficult to stomach aren't they .. oh I see Bill O'Reilly is a Fox News political commenter ...

@ Manzanita - glad you didn't get tempted back to the fridge. The Romans certainly knew how to use all the ingredients available.

I love a good pork roast once in a while .. I like their inclusive society - at least in the town ..

Thanks everyone - enjoy your Christmas preparations this weekend .. it's warmish here - with arctic threats next week ! cheers - Hilary

dolorah said...

That was awesome Hilary. What a feast. I'm not sure I'd care for all the porridge served to peasants though. And I don't like my food to stare at me :)

Have a great weekend.


MorningAJ said...

Fascinating stuff as usual Hilary. I'm already planning lots of feasting and now I have new inspiration. Thanks.

Francene Stanley said...

Well! I never knew about the gingerbread man coming from an old tradition. Thanks for all the research you've done and shared.

Patsy said...

I didn't know that about the gingerbread men! Maybe I should make gingerbread rejection letters and eat them?

Laura Eno said...

I never knew about the Lord of Misrule and I would have thought it would be an honor...NOT! How horrible.

Another thing you cleared up for me was the great variety of food. I didn't realize there were such wide choices - for the upper class anyway. I wouldn't have liked laying on my stomach on a sofa to eat dinner though.

You do such a marvelous job of researching and putting these posts together, Hilary!

Happy Christmas preparations. :)

Morgan said...

See? Always learning something new when I come here!

And I'm totally drooling over that pomegranate picture...

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

@ Donna - I agree with your thoughts here .. but I wouldn't mind being a patriarch or plebeian!! Then the pig would ok .. even with eyes .. I'd just ask them to turn the head in another direction!

@ Morning AJ - are you going to lounge on benches for these delightful feasts? Have you got slaves lined up ..?!

@ Frances - the gingerbread man information was an interesting find - not a happy one really .. but I do like gingerbread ..

@ Patsy - those gingerbread rejection letter replies sound a good idea ...

@ Laura - yes.. not a very good idea to be selected - you'd want to make yourself very scarce wouldn't you .. still it is a man - so we're ok!!

Eating dinner lying down isn't such a good idea - I'd hate to eat that way. There was an incredible range .. much larger than I realised ..

Many thanks for the thumbs up ..

@ Morgan .. I teach myself too - I made one dinner for some friends and every dish had pomegranates from my tree in ... it was very rich!

Cheers everyone - hope you're having a lovely Christmas preparation weekend .. Hilary

Anonymous said...

A Festive Feast of Facts! Wonderful Hilary. Lying down to eat seems rather odd, though.

My friend was concerned about tricking her children into believing in Santa Claus so I sent her research on St Nicolas, Good King Wenceslas and St Stephen and suggested that she might say that 'some people believe that... I wonder if it's true' and then the magic of Christmas would not be lost for her children.

Joylene Nowell Butler said...

I like the idea of adopting traditions from various cultures and making it all blend in to a new tradition. This was fascinating stuff, Hilary. Thanks. You are amazing.

Unknown said...

Very interesting post. Those Roman honey cakes look delicious. However, looking at the Roman dinner, how uncomfortable it must be to eat lying down.

Karen Lange said...

You know Hilary, I knew a few of these things, but never heard all these wonderful details. Thank you for keeping me informed. I always enjoy your posts! :)

Happy weekend,

Patsy said...

Hilary, I'm giving you a blog of the year award.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

@ Madeleine .. good to see you - lying down is what the Romans did though .. I'd hate it!!

What a lovely idea .. I got a little muddled with the various Santas, St Nicolas, GK Wenceslas and St Stephen - so good for you for finding the information and suggesting that thought - bet it helped her ..

@ Joylene - it sort of happens over time .. I wonder now the world is inhabited everywhere how much infusion will happen in the future. I just hope we don't become too much of the same in all countries ..

@ Clarissa - I agree the Roman honey cakes look good don't they .. but I love some of the Roman foods - they ate well, even if uncomfortable ..

@ Karen - thanks so much I enjoyed putting the post together .. and I'm happy to have your and everyone's lovely comments ..

@ Patsy - you seriously can't mean it .. THANK YOU SO MUCH .. that's amazing .. big hugs ..

Well that's floored me ... WOW Patsy is all I can say .. just delighted ...

Cheers to you all ... Hilary

D.G. Hudson said...

The honey cakes look messy but were probably great.

Enjoyed this post, Hilary. I like the way you explained how traditions evolved from earlier beliefs. Hubs liked the boar with the cherry eyes.

Susan Flett Swiderski said...

Another great post, Hilary. I've known some Italian families that serve boatloads of all those foods at their gatherings. Okay, so that's a slight exaggeration, but not by much, I don't know why everybody's so freaked out by that pig's head. (Guess they're not fans of head cheese, either.) Just throw a cloth over the head if it bothers you, and eat away! Gooood eating.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

@ DG - very Greek dessert like honey cakes .. and I'm sure were messy - but tasted delicious - I'm tempted everytime I look!

@ Susan - very similar foods to those of today .. the buffet style meal .. and the different courses.

I thought when I posted that picture - but it was the best I could (easily) find - and can't say it appeals to me much ... but roast pork, spit roasted pig, suckling pig etc are all so delicious .. I can imagine what the Romans would be eating.

Head cheese - now I've never heard it called that before ... I love brawn - and a great friend of my mother's made fabulous brawn and I was going to ask her to show me one day ... sadly she died very suddenly.

The early traditional dishes that have stood the test of time - have wonderful flavours and show the love in the preparation of them. Sad we don't do these things en famille any more ..

Goooood eating ... as you say Susan .. and DG - lovely to see you here - thank you.

Cheers - Hilary

Rosalind Adam said...

It's all about food, isn't it! It's Chanukah right now and we're supposed to eat lots of fried food like donuts to remember the miracle of the oil in the temple lasting eight days when there was only enough for one day.

Lynn said...

That's so interesting and yes - it made us who we are. I'm glad I don't have to look at that boar's face all the time. :) I'd like the honey cakes though and the Christmas Pudding is beautiful!

Diane said...

How very interesting. You always come up posts that are full of things I had no idea about before. Our Christmas will be quite different this year, we have booked to go to Casablanca in Morocco and hopefully we may get some sun :-) Keep well Diane

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Ros .. it is - food maketh convivial meals and hopefully intelligent and witty conversation ..

Oooh dear .. I'm not sure I'd like all that fried food .. but I didn't know about that tradition or the why - so that was interesting. I hope to get your book and learn more about Jewish life ...

@ Lynn - sorry about the boar - bet he tasted very good! Time makes us who we are .. and what our ancestors have used it for .. making us who we are.

I agree the honey cakes and I'm fond of Christmas pud ... perhaps sometimes fried up the next day with brandy butter!!

@ Diane - well you show me France .. and give us little tours - then the foods you prepare - delicious.

Lucky you - Casablanca sounds wonderful - some sun would be good wouldn't it .. still we're nearing the Solstice ..

Thanks Ros, Lynn and Diane - bet we'd have some amazing conversations around a dinner table! Happy thoughts - Hilary

L. Diane Wolfe said...

With all that fruit, they ate healthier desserts than we do.

Anonymous said...

Those Romans really knew how to do it! I'm with Diane on the fruit. Anything dark is supposed to be SO healthy for us -- and it's SO delicious!

Just sent you an email....Now I've got to get offline and help Jen....

klahanie said...

Hi Hilary,

Apologies for the delay in my 'eagerly anticipated' comment. Have been somewhat out on my travels, as you know.

Those Romans knew how to party. Although, I don't think there will be a stuffed roast boar on my table during the festive season. Might wait until January :)

Thank you, Hilary. Happy Christmas preparations to you.


Anonymous said...

We have Silly Hat Day here in the States. It can be any day of the year. No tunics though.

And I do like eating on the couch, but wifey gets mad.

That pig is freaking me out. Must be those beady red eyes.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

@ Diane - they had plenty of food ... but worked harder for it, I suspect.

@ Ann - they looked after their Society and made sure they had a good selection of produce. I know I love fruit and veg ... Got the email -thank you.

@ Gary - no worries and I do hope the travels went as satisfactorily as possible, in the circumstances.

They were hierarchial and looked after their own .. falling in with the seasons, yet realising that 'holidays' were important to keeping the populace 'sweet' .. No I won't be having boar .. though I do love it ..... got to catch my pig first!!

@ Stephen - Silly Hat Day .. that's the first I've heard - but we all have silly parties at times don't we.

I'm with your wife - if I'm with people then definitely eat at the table!! Sorry about the pig - it's probably not the best photo - but reflected what I wanted to show and came up ...

Cheers everyone - have one last good week for Christmas really kicks in ... Hilary

Hart Johnson said...

Oh, this was so interesting! I love that week of Misrule! (erm... other than the killing the innocent, thing--glad they substituted gingerbread there). But this was very cool stuff! Thank you!

Talli Roland said...

Another great post! I knew a little about the Roman holiday, but this was fascinating. They sure knew how to eat!

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

@ Hart - I know the Lord of Misrule week sounds good .. but killing him off is a bit much - and gingerbread men - I might avoid them in the future ..

@ Talli - many thanks - I added to my knowledge too ... and when they ate - they ate and banqueted they knew how - poor cook though!

Cheers to you both .. Hilary

Tina said...

Loved this history lesson! Awesome as always, Hilary.

Tina @ Life is Good

LynNerdKelley said...

This is all fascinating, but now I'm hungry, even though I just ate dinner! Well done, Hilary!

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

@ Tina .. many thanks - history offers much ..

@ Lyn - sorry about your dinner! Glad you enjoyed the post though ..

Cheers to you both - Hilary

Unknown said...

Fascinating post as usual. I'm so ignorant about history but I have a friend who write historical novels, so my interest has been piqued. This is fascinating and I love that there was a week when you couldn't be punished for playing havoc. I could think of a few Lords of Misrule. Thanks for the education Hilary.

Kittie Howard said...

Super post, Hilary. I'm going to google Raisin wine. And I love those gingerbread cookies. But what a history! I think early Christians moved Jesus' birthday to compete with Saturnalia. Plus the calendar change.

Southpaw said...

Lots of great information here. I have often wondered how the Romans kept up with lying down while eating. It is really not comfortable.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

@ Susan - me too .. til I started the blog, so I just keep on posting and keep on learning. Ah ah .. suggestions for Lord of Misrule - it'd be the week of agony we'd need to endure before the denouement .. delighted you enjoyed the history bit.

@ Kittie - many thanks .. well that surprised me - raisin wine being straw wine (Wiki) .. very interesting glad you 'made' me look it up ... I just love gingerbread - but now will remember why they have heads - so they can be 'eaten' off!

You're right about the dating of Jesus' birthday and Saturnalia .. then the pre-Julian calendar of Roman times ... to the Gregorian calendar in 1582 ... it was too much to bring into one post - but thanks for adding it in as a comment - always useful.

@ Holly - exeedingly uncomfortably you'd have thought - guess chairs as such hadn't been invented .. good to see you here ..

Cheers and thank you for commenting - Hilary

Elise Fallson said...

Hi Hilary, sorry it's taken me so long to get over here! I must say a week of Misrule sounds like crazy and dangerous fun. Wish I had a time machine to go back and see for myself... The boar does have a strange look in his eyes, (; but it doesn't shock me, the dangling chickens either. In France we have a saying, "tout est bon dans le cochon" which literally means everything is good (to eat/use) in the pig. I think the closest English saying I've heard to this is "we use everything but the oink!" That always makes me laugh. One thing's for sure, the Roman Honey Cakes are making me hungry... (:

Theresa Milstein said...

I'm sending this post link to my son because he like to learn about all things Roman. He's even thinking of studying Latin in school next year.

Oh, those honey cakes...

Interesting post with great pictures as always!

Sara said...

Okay, I really enjoyed learning the history of Gingerbread men. I'd always wondered about this, but never bothered to look it up.

I should have known you'd teach me about it anyway, as well as many other Christmas activities:~)

I think, however, I will pass on the Roasted Boar head. Something about his face isn't exactly my cup of tea.

Stay warm! I hear its cold in the UK right now.

David P. King said...

And now I want to go to Italy even more. Awesome, if not epic post! :)

Deniz Bevan said...

Gorgeous post, Hilary. You've made me so hungry! Cheeses and buns and olives and pickled vegetables... Yum. I tried mead once though, and didn't like it, unfortunately. I'll stick with ale/stout :-)

Arlee Bird said...

That was an amazingly detailed recounting of things as they were then. I'd heard of some of the pagan origins of Christmas but you brought them to greater clarity. I'd love to go back to visit, but I don't think I'd want to stay there.

Tossing It Out

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

@ Elise .. no worries, but your time machine idea sounds good! Yes, we use that expression over here, though many don't - yet in times of austerity (now) offal is making a come-back .. Waste not want not .. is a simpler saying .. the Roman honey cakes do look delicious don't they.

@ Theresa - I do hope your son found the post interesting .. it's great if I know the doors of history open up through these posts here - thanks .. and you too are tempted by the honey cakes!

@ Sara - I think I knew, but now I know about the gingerbread men! Glad you enjoyed the post .. but sorry about the roasted boar head ... it does taste so delicious!

It is somewhat cold here - but we've had worse ... lovely pink dawn sky with fluffy apricot clouds.

@ David - that's great .. I do hope you can visit soon - it's a beautiful country.

@ Denise - I love nibbles and starters - so I was happy writing about them! Mead I enjoy .. quite sickly sweet though ... ok ale/stout is good too, though not my favourite.

@ Arlee - many thanks .. I clarified things for myself! The Roman world would be tough - the survival of the fittest .. so I'll join you on that visit, but take me back with you!

Thanks everyone .. have a good few days - more Christmas preparations .. cheers Hilary