Originally written on February 22, 2021 – updated 2023
The Caristia, also called Cara Cognatio, was one of several days in February that Ancient Romans honored family or ancestors. It followed the Parentalia, nine days of remembrance which began on February 13 and concluded with the Feralia on February 21. If for the Parentalia families visited the tombs of their ancestors and shared cake and wine both in the form of offerings and as a meal among themselves, the Feralia was a more somber occasion, a public festival of sacrifices and offerings to the Manes, the spirits of the dead who required propitiation. The Caristia, instead, was a recognition of the family line as it continued into the present and among the living.
This was a Feast Day occasion of family reunion, when Roman fathers would pay special attention to their families.
It was a day of reconciliation when disagreements were to be set aside, but the poet Ovid apparently suggested this would be best achieved by excluding family members who caused trouble.
Families gathered together to dine and offer food and incense to the Guardian Deities, collectively known as Lares.
The Ancient Romans believed that celebrating Caristia would enhance their family connections and hence improve their personal harmony and wellbeing.
There were distributions of bread, wine, and sportulae (bonuses, tips, tokens of appreciation) and, apparently, the Christian Eucharist derives from this tradition, which in fact has both the concept of sharing bread (host) and wine.
The Caristia were so important that they were celebrated until 448 AD, only to be replaced the following year with the feast of Saints Peter and Paul.
A woman who was an example of family virtue is Cornelia Africana, the daughter of Scipio Africanus, the one who defeated Hannibal in the battle of Zama. She was the mother of Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus and, as a young widow, refused to marry the king of Egypt, Ptolemy VIII, choosing to dedicate herself to child care.
In response to a matron who bragged about her precious jewels, Cornelia showed her children, saying “Haec ornamenta mea!”, meaning “Here are my jewels!”
Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus became tribunes of the plebs and fought hard to abolish the Roman aristocracy’s privileges. As often happens to those who carry on this kind of ideals, they were killed.