A Day in Old Rome: A Picture of Roman Life

By William Stearns Davis | Go to book overview

CHAPTER XXI
THE FOREIGN CULTS: CYBELE, ISIS, MITHRAS. THE CHRISTIANS IN PAGAN EYES

370. Saturnalia: the Exchange of Presents on New Year's Day. -- Could our visit to Rome be prolonged across the year we should dwell on such so-called religious festivals as the Saturnalia which lasts seven days, beginning the 17th of December, when the whole city abandons itself to carnival mirth, when slaves for a brief and happy interval put on the tall pileus, the liberty cap, are allowed to be very pert to their masters, and indulge in all kinds of pranks and liberties; and when people exchange with all their friends semi-comic gifts of wax tapers and amusing little terra-cotta images, or other gifts of real value such as napkins, writing tablets, and dishes of preserved sweetmeats.1

More decorous is the ensuing holiday on the Kalends of January (New Year's Day) when ceremonious official calls are paid on every magnate from the Emperor downward, and more gifts are exchanged, often of the highest value.2 In these festivities and distributions of presents can perhaps be found the prototypes for the winter holidays of another religion and later age.

371. Multiplication of Oriental Cults. -- One dare not quit the Rome of Hadrian, however, without a cursory inspection of something extremely evident since we began our

____________________
1
It was quite proper to play "April Fool" jokes at the Saturnalia: e.g. to present what seemed a platter of delicious food when all the viands were actually of clay.
2
Substantially on the scale of "Christmas presents."

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