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Christmas customs predate Christ

Christmas past and present celebrated at The National Roman Legion Museum

Saturn, so like our Santa; eating and drinking; gifts; candles; and decorations - it's largely to Rome and the Roman period that we can trace and owe so many of our Christmas traditions. At the National Roman Legion Museum's Saturnalia event, held on Saturday 13 December 2008, these customs will be brought to life and compared with today's Christmas trends.

Saturnalia - the greatest festival of the Roman year, and Christmas - one of the most important events of the Christian calendar will be celebrated side by side at the Museum from 11am - 4pm.

Meet Romans celebrating the Saturnalia festival in the Pegasus Centre, giving gifts, feasting with family and friends and wearing special hats at the dinner table. The banquet will continue in the Museum's gallery with mince pies, mulled wine and hot chocolate as well as craft stalls selling cheese, chocolate and much more.

Saturn - the god of sowing, is depicted as a white-bearded, content old man who's not unlike our Father Christmas. Santa will be posing for photographs with visitors at the Museum from 12 - 1pm and 3 - 4pm.

The Romans also used to hang wreaths and garlands to decorate their homes during the festival. Come to the Museum to make your own decorations including paper chains to decorate your home.

And try and beat the Roman soldiers at their own games! Gambling became such an obsession for some Romans, and such a social problem in general, the Republic restricted gambling to the week-long festivities surrounding Saturnalia. Gamble at any other time of the year and the Romans would be punished by being thrown in a trough of ice-cold water!

Mark Lewis, Curatorial Officer, National Roman Legion Museum added:

"Saturnalia was a time to give gifts to friends and family just like Christmas. Candles were exchanged and evergreen plants such as holly would have been used to decorate the home.

"It was a time of joy and effectively a bank holiday as is 25 December today. Shops, schools and law courts were shut and no public business could be conducted. Everyone stopped work, even slaves who sat alongside their masters and were briefly treated as equals!

"Officially Saturnalia took place on 17 December. However it was such a good party that people elongated the feast and kept it going for more than a day - a bit like our old twelve days of Christmas!"

So, come and enjoy the festive spirit of the Romans at the National Roman Legion Museum on 13 December. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, Nadolig Llawen a Blwyddyn Newydd Dda or as the Romans would say ‘Io Saturnalia'!

Entry to the event and each of Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales' sites is free thanks to the support of the Welsh Assemble Government.

Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales operates seven national museums across Wales. These are National Museum Cardiff, St Fagans: National History Museum, National Roman Legion Museum, Caerleon, Big Pit: National Coal Museum, Blaenafon, National Wool Museum, Dre-fach Felindre, National Slate Museum, Llanberis and the National Waterfront Museum, Swansea.

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For further information, please contact Catrin Mears, Communications Officer on 029 2057 3185 or email