February 22 – The Caristia: The Ancient Roman Family Thanksgiving Feast

Fresco from the House of Julia Felix in Pompeii, Italy.

February 22 was the ancient Roman holiday called the Caristia, and it was one of the biggest party days in the Roman calendar. Essentially it was Thanksgiving and Christmas put together – a private family get-together with lots of food and giving presents.

As stated in earlier articles concerning the Parentalia and Feralia festivals, the period from February 13 to 21 was devoted largely to remembrance of the dead. This was the time period known as the Parentalia, the main feast day was the opening day on February 13. The Parentalia was a remembrance period concerning paying due respects to any of your deceased family members. The last day of the Parentalia mourning period was called the Feralia, which was dedicated to the memory and honor of all people who had died during the past year regardless if they were related to you or not.

With the period of solemn mourning and duties to the dead being concluded, it was time to turn your attentions away from those who had died and towards those among your family who were still alive. February 22, the first day after the Parentalia mourning period, was the date of the Caristia, a day intended to celebrate the lives of your nearest and dearest. The festival was sometimes known as the day of cara cognatio, ‘dear relatives”. On this day, a great feast would be held in each household, full of laughter and merriment, devoted to the love and affection that parents had for their children and vice versa. It was a wonderful way of saying “We are so happy to have each other in our lives”. Because this was meant as a private celebration for each family, outsiders were not allowed to participate; to do so would be very intrusive and improper (William Warde Fowler, The Roman Festivals of the Period of the Republic: An Introduction to the Study of the Religion of the Romans. London: Macmillan and Co., Ltd., 1899. Pages 308-309; Christian Roy, Traditional Festivals: A Multicultural Encyclopedia, Volume 1. Santa Barbara: ABC-Clio, 2005. Page 45).

As the poet Ovid states…

“The next day has its name, Caristia, from our dear (cari) kin, when a throng of relations gathers to the family gods. It’s surely pleasant to turn our faces to the living, once away from our relatives who have perished, and after so many lost, to see those of our blood who remain, and count the degrees of kinship. Let the innocent come: let the impious brother be far, far from here, and the mother harsh to her children, he whose father’s too long-lived, who weighs his mother’s years, the cruel mother-in-law who crushes the daughter-in-law she hates. Be absent Tantalides, Atreus, Thyestes: and Medea, Jason’s wife; Ino who gave parched seeds to the farmers; and Procne, her sister, Philomela, and Tereus cruel to both, and whoever has gathered wealth by wickedness. Virtuous ones, burn incense to the gods of the family, (Gentle Concord is said to be there on this day above all) and offer food, so the robed Lares may feed from the dish granted to them as a mark of esteem, that pleases them. Then when moist night invites us to calm slumber, fill the wine-cup full, for the prayer, and say ‘Health, health to you, worthy Caesar, Father of the Country!’ and let there be pleasant speech at the pouring of wine” (Ovid, Fasti, book 2, February 22).

However, don’t get the idea that this was a drunken free-for-all atmosphere. Even on a woohoo day like this, there were still social conventions that had to be observed. For example, Plutarch states that it wasn’t allowed for husbands and wives to exchange gifts to each other, nor was it appropriate for a person to receive a gift from their son-in-law or father-in-law, and he gives several reasons why these rules existed (Plutarch, Roman Questions, #7 and #8).

While children get on their parents’ nerves from time to time, and vice-versa, it’s important to try to stay on good terms with your relatives as much as you can. For the moment, let by-gones be by-gones and eat and drink in friendship.


Please check out my “Today in Ancient Rome” series for more articles on the ancient Roman calendar. You can find the whole list by clicking here!

Categories: History, Uncategorized

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: