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Saturnalia, St Nicholas and Felt Hats: Ancient Traditions and Modern Christmas

Updated on December 18, 2014

The ancients...


How it all began

December is quite a remarkable month, what with the return of the sun, following the solstice on December 21, the birth of the Son, and the changing year on December 31. If the modern world is to be congratulated on anything, it is on the seamless way it has entwined this trajectory of special days. Over the centuries, Christmas customs have been revived and forgotten, and then revived again. The feast of St Nicholas on December 6 and Epiphany on January 6 have become amalgamated into the festival – although a number of cultures celebrate these feasts separately –and give us what we call Christmas.

The majority of people are aware that the form of our modern Christmas is descended from the Roman feast of Saturnalia. In Roman times, Saturnalia involved six days of feasting, from December 17 to 22, followed by gift giving on the 23rd day of the month. For the duration of the festival, places of commerce, study and legal administration stayed shut, and a carnival atmosphere pervaded everywhere. All the social norms were overturned, with gambling (usually forbidden) allowed and masters waiting on their servants. The latter custom derived from the belief that the Roman god Saturn ruled over a golden age of prosperity and social equality. With the coming of Christianity, the Roman authorities continued to celebrate Saturnalia, placing it before the Nativity of Christ, on December 25.


Where did he get that hat?

On reading about Saturnalia, one fact struck me; namely, that on those six December days, every Roman was entitled to wear a “pilleus”, a brimless, conical felt hat that was normally reserved for the free men of Rome. The pilleus is derived from the pileus, worn in ancient Greece and also a symbol of status. The Greek pileus later developed into the Phrygian bonnet, now a part of traditional Greek dress and a symbol of freedom in other cultures. Ancient pictures of the pileus and pilleus reminded me of another hat that we see frequently in modern Christmas images.

Nicholas of Myra was a Greek bishop, born in 270 and living until 343 AD. Much has been written about his deeds, how he fed the hungry and granted poor young women dowries, so that they could marry respectably and not be sold into slavery. After his death, his reputation continued to grow and he was eventually canonised a saint. He is, of course, the forerunner of our modern Santa Claus. When illustrator Haddon Sundblom created the popular image of Santa Claus for a Coca-Cola advertisement in the 1930s, it was most likely not a coincidence that the familiar red, fur-trimmed hat resembled the ancient pilleus.

The Elf....

Flying through the sky

The tradition of Saint Nicholas is not the only one channelled into Santa Claus. In northern Europe, people celebrated the mid-winter tradition of Yule, when all kinds of magical things were to happen in recognition of this special time of year. One of these was the Wild Hunt, a ghostly procession through the sky. Its leader, associated with the Norse god Odin, with Jolnir (or Yule Figure) or Langbaror, meaning “long beard”. Odin rode an eight-legged horse name Sleipnir and travelled around, delivering gifts to people. In north America, European emigrants transformed Sleipnir into a team of reindeer pulling a sleigh, and so Santa Claus was born.

Nowadays, we have scores of Santa Clauses descending into shopping malls from helicopters – how prescient of the ancients! And what else is Rudolph’s glowing nose only the forerunner of an electronic indicator system? The contemporary Santa has acquired an entire range of helpers, usually named elves and this year, I have taken delight in dressing up like one. Incidentally, elves also wear the pilleus – see above. Wherever you go and whatever you do, have a wonderful holiday


The Golden Bough by James Frazer, Oxford World's Classics


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