March 1, 2021

Nuts and figurines, children’s star gifts in the Roman Saturnalia



The Roman children received nuts and figurines of wax and terracotta in the celebration of the Figlinaria, the last day of the Saturnals, the great feast of the winter solstice in Rome, many of whose traditions still survive in the current Christmas, as it happens with the gifts to the little ones on the feast of the Magi.

In fact, although Christmas is dedicated to remembering the birth of Jesus Christ, it is believed that he was actually born around the month of April and that the first Christian church decided to place his arrival in the world in December to make him “heir to all that vast tradition of centuries “that relates the divinity to the winter solstice, as was the case in Roman civilization with the feasts in honor of Saturn, the good god who brought peace and goodness among men.

The historian Pilar Caldera, curator of the National Museum of Roman Art and expert in traditions, mentality and way of life in Antigua in Rome, has explained to Efe that the last day of this festival of Saturnales was especially dedicated to children, as it happens in Spain with the Christmas party and the celebration of the Magi.

That day had the name of Figlinaria by the wax and terracotta figurines that were given to the little ones and that were also delivered among adults in a more or less surprising way, as is done today with the “invisible friend” .

Adults thus received these inexpensive gifts but loaded with great symbolism during Saturnalia, in addition to other more expensive ones, such as pieces of silver, or the “Sportula”, a basket full of groceries in a tradition reminiscent of our Christmas baskets.

With regard to children, Pilar Caldera recalls the great prominence they had at banquets and private and family celebrations of the parties in honor of Saturn, something that was not usual for the rest of the year.

The little ones at these parties, which were celebrated in the Roman Empire from December 17 to 23, were to receive from their biggest nuts, which they used to play with and that were the symbol of childhood in Rome to such an extent that the passage to adolescence was called “relinque nuces” (leaves nuts).

In addition, on the last day of Saturnalia, the one dedicated to them, their parents, their grandparents or their nurses gave them wax figurines, which they then burned in the larariums in honor of Saturn, as adults do, and terracotta, which they could represent adult women, birds or animals and in some cases they were whistles that worked with water.

The emeritense historian remembers that boys, but especially Roman girls, used to keep their Saturnalia gifts to such an extent that some of these terracotta figurines, which are like their dolls, have appeared in some graves of women who died young as a symbol of virginity and of not having reached marriage.

There were also articulated bone dolls in Ancient Rome, such as the one discovered in Ontur (Albacete), a “real wonder” of Hispanic archeology, and others similar to today’s puppets.

It was very common, according to Pilar Caldera, that domestic animals were seen as children’s playmates and among them the birds were considered very suitable for girls, so there were large birdhouses in the peristyls of the houses.

Similarly, the little Romans used to play with something similar to what are the current marbles and the tabas, which also symbolized childhood.

For Caldera, the toys had such symbolic importance in the childhood of the Romans, that the boys handed them over to the gods as an offering the day they took the virile toga, just like the “bulla” or amulet they wore before officially entering the adult world.

Jero Díaz Galán

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