Updated: Sep 4, 2021
Lucy Grig, University of Edinburgh.
The best-known mid-winter festival in the ancient world is undoubtedly Saturnalia, which was celebrated from December 17th-23rd. Saturnalia is famous for its joyful abandon and merriment but also for its carnivalesque inversions: masters served their slaves and citizens dressed in the freedman’s cap. Like the later festival of Carnival, Saturnalia was associated with satire, with jokes and with the ideas of licence. It is clearly a festival that has much to offer those interested in history from below and has often been studied as such. However, it is not the only winter festival that can tell us about ancient popular culture. In the Later Roman Empire – in Late Antiquity – it was a different festival, the Kalends of January, which seems to have caught the popular imagination.
Traditionally the festival Kalends was very much associated with Roman power. In the city of Rome itself it marked the inauguration of the new magistrates for the year; across the Empire the army renewed their vows of loyalty to the emperor, and were rewarded with an annual gift of money in their turn. In the cities of the Mediterranean we know of circus races and processions, put on by local officials. Alongside these official events, however, there were a whole range of rituals and practices, many of which we know about through the hostile response they provoked from the late antique Church, now that Christianity was the official religion of the Roman Empire. Across this empire, in in cities and towns and even in the countryside, bishops complained about the behaviour of their flocks at this time.
What exactly were they complaining about? Much of the behaviour associated with the Kalends was precisely what we would expect from any festive revelry: eating, drinking, singing, dancing and carousing were all involved, as we would expect. Ritual practices clearly associated with the idea of the new year were attacked as ‘superstitious’ by clerics: for instance, in the town and countryside alike, people laid out food on tables aiming to secure abundance the year ahead. They also exchanged gifts known as strenae– ‘good luck presents’ (which can be compared with the sigillariaof Saturnalia), ranging from fruit decorated with tinsel to gold coins. These gifts were exchanged – along with greetings, known as vota- as part of door to door visits, again, in both town and country. It is these visits which contain the most intriguing aspects of the festival from the point of view of ancient popular culture.
New year’s revellers would make their visits in a range of costumes. They might for instance paint their faces - a cheap, easy and persistent carnival disguise. Worse still from the point of the view of the clerical naysayers, they might seek to change their essence. In east and west alike cross-dressing is a frequent complaint – to the disgust of our sources, who saw this practice as unnatural and abhorrent. While normally our texts refer to men dressing as women, there is also mention of women dressing as men. In the Latin West however another form of dressing up is even more frequently decried: dressing up as animals, especially as stags, and as cattle. Again, clerics complained that this was an unnatural betrayal of God’s creation.
The Kalends revellers, their real identity often safely hidden under a disguise, felt free to enjoy themselves – in what is clearly another instance of festive licence. One particular clerical witness, Asterius, bishop of Amaseia in the Black Sea region at the end of the fourth century CE, complains bitterly about the nuisance these revellers made of themselves. He claims they beat up innocent farmers, come into the city for the holiday, as well as harassing clergymen themselves. He describes how they gathered into squads to visit the houses of the rich – paying particular attention to the houses of local politicians – to demand gifts in the form of hard cash.
Furthermore, Asterius complains that it was the lowest of the low who made up these gangs: performers - including female ones! – and ‘common beggars’. Of course we must understand that the bishop is trying to depict these revellers as negatively as possible in order to dissuade his more respectable listeners from joining in the fun. Nevertheless, it is still possible to take these descriptions as evidence for the way in which the poor and the socially marginal made creative use of festive revelry in an attempt to better their situation, as well as to let off steam. Corrupt or inept politicians – particular at times of food shortages – were particularly liable to suffer from harassment at least, and this political aspect to the revelry should not be underestimated, in Late Antiquity, as today.
The Kalends of January was a festival with notable ‘bottom up’, as well as ‘top down’ elements. It provided a temporary escape from the privations of the winter, an opportunity to let off steam. It also provided an opportunity to try out a change of identity and - potentially at least – to make use of this disguise in order to seek material improvement and to settle scores.