Yesterday we looked at Macrobius’s account of the origin of the Festival of Saturnalia to see if it’s origins influenced Christmas, as some claim. Macrobius gave several different stories and none of them seem to have anything to do with the birth of anyone. Now Saturnalia occurred in the month of December, but did it occur on December 25, or as the Romans would say Eight days before the Kalends of January?
the following is taken from Saturnalia Book 1.10.1-23 and I give the entire chapter, but I will bold the most important parts. This is taken from the Davies translation (1969).
[ 1 ] But to return to our account of the Saturnalia. It was held to an offense against religion to begin a war at the time of the Saturnalia, and to punish a criminal during the days of the festival called for an act of atonement.  Our ancestors restricted the Saturnalia to a single day, the fourteenth before the Kalends of January, but, after Gaius Caesar had added two days to December, the day on which the festival was held became the sixteenth before the Kalends of January, with the result that, since the exact day was not commonly known—some observing the addition which Caesar had made to the calendar and others following the old usage —the festival came to be regarded as lasting for more days than one.
And yet in fact among the men of old time there were some who supposed that the Saturnalia lasted for seven days (if one may use the word “suppose” of something which has the support of competent authorities);  for Novius, that excellent writer of Atellan plays, says: “Long awaited they come, the seven days of the Saturnalia” [Ribbeck, II, 328]; and Mummius too, who, after Novius and Pomponius, restored the long-neglected Atellan to favor, says: “Of the many excellent institutions of our ancestors this is the best—that they made the seven days of the Saturnalia begin when the weather is coldest” [Ribbeck, II, 332].
 Mallius, however, says that the men who, as I have already related, had found protection in the name of Saturn and in the awe which he inspired, ordained a three-day festival in honor of the god, calling it the Saturnalia, and that it was on the authority of this belief that Augustus, in his laws for the administration of justice, ordered the three days to be kept as rest days.
 Masurius and others believed that the Saturnalia were held on one day, the fourteenth day before the Kalends of January, and their opinion is corroborated by Fenestella when he says that the virgin Aemilia was condemned on the fifteenth day before the Kalends of January; for, had that day been a day on which the festival of the Saturnalia was being celebrated, she could not by any means have been called on to plead,  and he adds that “the day was the day which preceded the Saturnalia,” and then goes on to say that “on the day after that, namely, the thirteenth day before the Kalends of January, the virgin Licinia was to plead,” thereby making it clear that the thirteenth day too was not a festival.
[ 7 ] On the twelfth day before the Kalends of January there is a rest day in honor of the goddess Angeronia, to whom the pontiffs offer sacrifice in the chapel of Volupia. According to Verrius Flac-cus, this goddess is called Angeronia because, duly propitiated, she banishes anxiety (angores) and mental distress.  Masurius adds that an image of this goddess, with the mouth bound up and sealed,1 is placed on the altar of Volupia, because all who conceal their pain and care find, thanks to their endurance, great joy (voluptas) at last.  According to Julius Modestus, however, sacrifices are offered to Angeronia because, pursuant to the fulfillment of a vow, she delivered the Roman people from the disease known as the quinsy (angina).
 The eleventh day before the Kalends of January is a rest day in honor of the Lares, for whom the praetor Aemilius Regillus in the war against Antiochus solemnly promised to provide a temple in the Campus Martius.
 The tenth day before the Kalends is a rest day in honor of Jupiter, called the Larentinalia. I should like to say something of this day, and here are the beliefs generally held about it.
 In the reign of Ancus, they say, a sacristan of the temple of Hercules, having nothing to do during the rest day challenged the god to a game of dice, throwing for both players himself, and the stake for which they played was a dinner and the company of a courtesan.  Hercules won, and so the sacristan shut up Acca Larentia in the temple (she was the most notable courtesan of the time) and the dinner with her. Next day the woman let it be known that the god as a reward for her favors had bidden her take advantage of the first opportunity that came to her on her way home. [ 14] It so happened that, after she had left the temple, one Carutius, captivated by her beauty, accosted her, and in compliance with his wishes she married him. On her husband’s death all his estate came into her hands, and, when she died, she named the Roman people her heir.  Ancus therefore had her buried in the Velabrum, the most frequented part of the city, and a yearly rite was instituted in her honor, at which sacrifice was offered by a priest to her departed spirit—the rest day being dedicated to Jupiter because it was believed of old that souls are given by him and are given back to him again after death.  Cato, however, says that Larentia, enriched by the profits of her profession, left lands known as the Turacian, Semurian, Lintirian, and Solinian lands to the Roman people after her death and was therefore deemed worthy of a splendid tomb and the honor of an annual service of remembrance.  But Macer, in the first Book of his Histories, maintains that Acca Larentia was the wife of Faustulus and the nurse of Romulus and Remus and that in the reign of Romulus she married a weajthy Etruscan named Carutius, succeeded to her husband’s wealth as his heir, and afterward left it to her foster child Romulus, who dutifully appointed a memorial service and a festival in her honor.
 One can infer, then, from all that has been said, that the Saturnalia lasted but one day and was held only on the fourteenth day before the Kalends of January; it was on this day alone that the shout of “Io Saturnalia” would be raised, in the temple of Saturn, at a riotous feast. Now, however, during the celebration of the Saturnalia, this day is allotted to the festival of the Opalia, although the day was first assigned to Saturn and Ops in common.
 Men believed that the goddess Ops was the wife of Saturn and that both the Saturnalia and the jOpalia are held in this month of December because the produce of the fields and orchards are thought to be the discovery of these two deities, who, when men have gathered in the fruits of the earth, are worshiped therefore as the givers of a more civilized life.  Some too are of the opinion that Saturn and Ops represent heaven and earth, the name Saturn being derived from the word for growth from seed (satus), since such growth is the gift of heaven, and the name Ops being identified with earth, either because it is by her bounty (ops) that life is nourished or because the name comes from the toil (opus) which is needed to bring forth the fruits of trees and fields.  When men make prayer to Ops they sit and are careful to touch the earth, signifying thereby that the earth is the very mother of mortals and is to be approached as such.
 Philochorus says that Cecrops was the first to build, in Attica, an altar to Saturn and Ops, worshiping these deities as Jupiter and Earth, and to ordain that, when crops and fruits had been garnered, the head of a household everywhere should eat thereof in company with the slaves with whom he had borne the toil of cultivating the land, for it was well pleasing to the god that honor should be paid to the slaves in consideration of their labor. And that is why we follow the practice of a foreign land and offer sacrifice to Saturn with the head uncovered.
 I think that we have now given abundant proof that the festival of the Saturnalia used to be celebrated on only one day, the fourteenth before the Kalends of January, but that it was afterward prolonged to last three days: first, in consequence of the days which Caesar added to the month of December, and then in pursuance of an edict of Augustus which prescribed a series of three rest days for the Saturnalia. The festival therefore begins on the sixteenth day before the Kalends of January and ends on the fourteenth, which used to be the only day of its celebration.5  However, the addition of the feast of the Sigillaria has extended the time of general excitement and religious rejoicing to seven days.
Macrobius does an excellent job summarizing authorities that were available to him, most of which I think have been lost. His conclusion is quite clear, Saturnalia originally was one day and occurred on the 14th day before the Kalends January, but when Caesar altered the calendar it was extended to three days and started on the 16th, later a new Festival of Sigillaria extended the celebrations to complete seven days, meaning that the Festival ended on either the 10th or ninth day before the Kalends of January depending on how we count. Of course neither of these days fall on the eighth day before the Kalends of January, that is December 25.
And to make all things complete, does the Festival of Sigillaria have anything to do with Christmas? Not really:
I must now deal briefly with the Sigillaria, for I would not have you think that I spoke of a matter calling for a smile rather than reverence.
 Epicadus relates that Hercules after killing Geryon drove his herds in triumph through Italy and from a bridge (now known as the Sublician Bridge), which had been built for the occasion, cast into the river a number of human figures equal to the number of the comrades he had chanced to lose on his journey, his object being to ensure that these figures might be carried by the current to the sea and so, as it were, to restore to their ancestral homes the bodies of the dead.8 This is said to have been the origin of the practice, which has persisted, of including the making of such figures in a religious rite.  In my opinion, however, a truer account of the origin of this practice is that which, I remember, I recently recalled,” namely, that, when the Pelasgians learned, by a happier interpretation of the words, that “heads” meant heads of clay not heads of living men and came to understand that φωτος meant “of a light” as well as “of a man,” they began to kindle wax tapers in honor of Saturn, in preference to their former ritual, and to carry little masks to the chapel of Dis, which adjoins the altar of Saturn, instead of human heads.  Thence arose the traditional custom of sending round wax tapers at the Saturnalia and of making and selling little figures of clay for men to offer to Saturn, on behalf of Dis, as an act of propitiation for themselves and their families.  So it is that the regular use of such articles of trade begins at the Saturnalia and lasts for seven days. These days, in consequence, are only rest days (feriatos), not all of them are festivals. For we have shown that the day in the middle, namely the thirteenth day before the Kalends of January,10 was a day for legal business; and this has been attested by other statements made by those who have given a fuller account of the arrangement of the year, months, and days, and of the regulation of the calendar by Gaius Caesar.-Saturnalia 1.11.46-50
One wonders why people made such claims about the Festival of Saturnalia when it clearly has nothing to do with Christmas. If however another ancient author contradicts Macrobius, please post a comment and let me know.
Tomorrow I will post Macrobius’s account of presenting an infant at the winter solstice, December 25.