From the “Sigillaria” festival to the nativity scene: overlapping traditions

Art & Culture, Special

One of the most deeply-rooted religious traditions of Ancient Rome was the devotion to ancestors. Portraits were stored in every house, also in the form of small terracotta statues known as sigilla. They were images of the Lares (the deities protecting the houses) that families exchanged as a sign of friendship and greeting. Children normally placed the statuettes in small natural settings on the date of commemoration of their ancestors, the so-called Sigillaria festival on 20 December (the winter solstice) introduced by Caligula.

In Roman culture, the winter solstice is a celebration of the “undefeated Sun” and the “newborn Sun” coming immediately after. Ancient European cultures (and not only) that respected the lunar months and solar cycles had great respect for such moments of transition. The memory of these extraordinary events is expressed in Christian celebrations throughout the year to make them more comprehensible to the people. It is no coincidence that Christmas is on the days of the winter solstice, following the passage from the Julian calendar (followed by Orthodox Christians) to the Gregorian calendar (established in 1582).

As we all know, Saint Francis of Assisi created the first nativity scene in Greccio (Rieti) in 1223. It was a way of promoting the holy witness of the Nativity anywhere, given the impossibility to travel to Palestine which was now under Muslim control. Nevertheless, it is likely that the theatrical representation of the Nativity is simply an enduring memory of the previous Ancient Roman celebration related to the family. The Latin tradition was also adopted by the main Roman city of western Liguria, Albintimilium. The ruins of such dwelling are the origins of Ventimiglia, and dozens of sigilla resurfaced from excavations in the area. The statues tell us the origins of a tradition that brings families together and makes children smile: after all, the little ones have always been the true protagonists of Christmas.

Alessandro Giacobbe