The winter season contains many traditions and holidays like Winter Solstice, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or Christmas; however, have you heard of Saturnalia?
This Roman holiday is likely the foundation for many modern-day Winter holiday traditions. So, what exactly was Saturnalia? Let’s take a look at this holiday’s origins and its effects on our society today.
Please note that I make every effort to ensure this information is correct and accurate through my own experiences and by referencing the sources listed at the bottom of this article.
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What is Saturnalia?
Saturnalia was an epic and unruly Roman holiday that celebrated the Roman agricultural god Saturn.
It’s important to understand that much of the information about this festival spans about 500 years of written information and different Roman sources. It’s undeniable this holiday and how it was celebrated would change and evolve.
Saturnalia’s exact historical beginnings are unknown. It’s possible it evolved as an agricultural holiday that aligned with the Winter Solstice.
Farmers practiced gift-giving rituals and sacrifices for gods during the middle of Winter. This corresponded with the Winter sowing season. The belief was these practices would create favor from the gods, allowing farmers to be blessed with an abundant harvest. These traditions were later adopted by others, and the holiday was officially named Saturnalia.
It’s worth noting that some Roman texts suggest it began in the ancient past when Saturn reigned as king, and slavery didn’t exist.
Festivities launched with a large and public sacrificial ritual at the temple of Saturn. The days that followed involved a lot of many days of eating, drinking, partying, and gambling.
Saturnalia can be summarized as a holiday designed to defy social conventions. The most prominent example is the reversal of roles involving slaves and their owners. Slaves were urged to eat with their owners, mouth off to them, and sometimes owners served dinner to their slaves.
Keep in mind that history wasn’t written by slaves but by the wealthy, who may have viewed this holiday differently. For example, just because owners served dinner to their slaves doesn’t mean they prepared the meal. It’s believed this aspect of Saturnalia may have served as a control mechanism and brief release for the strict social rules and harsh life slaves endured.
When is Saturnalia?
Since Saturnalia was associated with the Winter planting season, it occurred in mid-December. The starting date of Saturnalia was December 17th.
The holiday was initially celebrated on a single day; however, its popularity led to it being expanded. Over the years, the length of the Saturnalia celebration evolved into three days, five days, and eventually seven days, as different emperors had different motives and intentions.
For example, Augustus cut the holiday to three days to keep civil courts open as much as possible, while Caligula extended it to five.
Eventually, a seven-day holiday was determined due to widespread public opinion, and Saturnalia was celebrated from December 17th-23rd.
Saturnalia is a festival celebrating Saturn Roman god of agriculture. Saturnalia most likely began as a time of sacrifices in hopes of a successful planting season.
Mythology tells a tale of Saturn arriving and teaching Romans all their farming practices, including cultivating grapes. It is no surprise that Saturn is also the god of wealth, as agriculture was vital to establishing wealth in Rome. Saturnalia rapidly attained popularity, becoming a significant festival for the Roman Empire.
The ancient Saturnalia was a time of feasting and merriment at the end of the harvesting and wine-making seasons.
The ancient festival took place in the Roman temple of Saturn; today’s modern Pagans keep the festival alive in homes, halls, and fields.Susan Pesznecker – Yule: Rituals, Recipes & Lore for the Winter Solstice
What Was a Saturnalia Festival?
During Saturnalia, people’s actions likely mirrored Mardi Gras much more closely than the Winter holiday traditions we celebrate today. It was one giant party, and businesses completely shut down.
There were tons of feasts and family events as well as public celebrations. Drunken revelry and overconsumption of anything desired led the way during the Saturnalia Festival.
While Saturnalia was celebrated throughout the Roman Empire, the festivities reached a fever pitch in Rome, where ground zero for Saturnalia was the Temple of Saturn. It was common for livestock to be sacrificed at the temple to honor Saturn.
The statue of Saturn was traditionally bound at the ankles with rope made of wool. During Saturnalia, these bonds were loosened, representing the god’s liberation.
Parties of Saturnalia lasted into the night, with celebrants lighting candles or torches and celebrating in the streets until late at night. Time was typically spent singing, eating, drinking, and playing various games. With Saturnalia serving as an immensely popular holiday, it is no surprise that many traditions developed.
The Lord of Misrule
One of the most exciting is the selection of a Lord of Misrule (aka Saturnalicius princeps (leader of the Saturnalia). Every family chose a mock king member to lead their Saturnalia festivities. This family member was typically the black sheep or lowly member of the household.
The Lord of Misrule’s job was to plan debauchery, wear strange outfits, incite chaos, insult guests, and create a healthy level of mischief. This title was bestowed in playful mockery of Roman emperors.
Gambling and Partying
Gambling was another major tradition during Saturnalia. In the Roman Empire, gambling was typically either illegal or socially unacceptable; however, it was allowed during Saturnalia, with even slaves permitted to partake in games of chance and dice.
A popular chant of Saturnalia was “Io Saturnalia,” with people running through the streets chanting “Io Io Io.” I was unable to find a proper pronunciation of this. Some sources claim it’s pronounced Yo, while others claim it’s EE-Oh. If you have a credible source stating correct pronunciation, please let me know.
It is rumored that this is where Santa Claus’ famous “Ho Ho Ho!” call originated, although that has not been confirmed by historians.
Another tradition was a reversal of roles. This was most notably seen in the allowances given to slaves to buy small gifts. During Saturnalia, slaves were allowed to talk back to their masters and even wear their masters’ clothing.
The reversal of roles also appeared in public dress, where Romans wore casual clothing instead of the typical togas or tunics.
The final day of the week-long festivities was called Sigillaria and ended with gift-giving.
Wax tapered candles known as cerei were traditionally given as presents to symbolize the return of light after the Winter solstice. Other gifts included wax figurines, small terracotta figurines, and even gag gifts.
Is Saturnalia the Origin of Christmas?
Saturnalia is the predecessor to Christmas because many of its traditions were absorbed by Christians into the holiday.
As Rome conquered most of Europe, they forced the assimilation of local festivals and holidays. Many Midwinter festivals were converted. As a result, much of the Roman Empire celebrated Saturnalia, creating large areas with unified customs.
In 313 AD, Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, which paved the way for Rome to become a Christian society. The shift from Saturnalia to Christmas was a very deliberate one. It is believed that this decision was driven by efforts to convert pagans in the empire to Christianity. It ultimately served as the foundation for Christmas, with many customs such as gift-giving, singing, and family gatherings.
The Bible doesn’t give a specific date of birth for Jesus. However, some historians think December 25th was chosen since it takes place nine months after the Spring Equinox. At that time, Spring was considered to take place on March 25th, and due to its associations with new life, growth, and birth, it was believed to be the date of conception.
Pagans and Christians co-existed (not always happily) during this period, and this likely represented an effort to convince the remaining pagan Romans to accept Christianity as Rome’s official religion.History – Saturnalia
Saturnalia was the high point of the Roman calendar from its roots as a more solemn practice for farmers to honor the gods to its height as a week-long mid-winter celebration where work was avoided for revelry and debauchery.
At its peak, Saturnalia was a rowdy festival where the established social order was turned upside down. It was a brief time of equity when slaves were treated as ordinary citizens, and the black sheep of families were honored. In many ways, the Saturnalia Festival would have looked quite bizarre to the outsider.
Many Pagans, Witches, and those interested in Nature Spirituality celebrate the seasonal cycles. They are sometimes referred to as the Pagan holidays or the Wheel of the Year, consisting of eight celebrations. Four of these festivals (Imbolc, Beltane, Lughnasadh, and Samhain) are rooted in Celtic history and origins.
The other four (Spring Equinox, Summer Solstice, Autumn Equinox, and Winter Solstice) represent the sun’s location. I created a complete guide to each season, including history, traditions, symbols, correspondences, ritual ideas, and how you can celebrate.