Io Saturnalia! The Origins and Celebration of a Favourite Roman Midwinter Festival

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The Saturnalia was a favourite Roman festival of misrule and merriment. Elements of it survive in our own Christmas celebrations.

The Saturnalia was a favourite Roman festival of misrule and merriment. Elements of it survive in our own Christmas celebrations. Painting by Lawrence Alma Tadema

Dedicated to the god Saturn, Saturnalia was one of a series of Roman festivals celebrated at midwinter. Its festivities lasted for a week, with normal life suspended in favour of eating, drinking, gift giving and social subversion.

Despite its pagan origins, many continued to celebrate Saturnalia beyond the Christian era, as it finally bequeathed many of its elements to the Christmas celebrations of today.

The Celebrations of Saturnalia

A public banquet at the temple of Saturn marked the opening celebrations of Saturnalia, when the god’s statue was released from the ties which bound it to the temple for the rest of the year. For the period of the festival, Saturnus was King.

During the rule of Saturnus, the festival inverted normal social ruled. ‘during my week the serious is barred, ‘ Saturn tells his priest in Lucian’s Saturnalia, ‘no business allowed. Drinking and being drunk, noise and games and dice, appointing of kings and feasting of slaves, singing naked, clapping of tremulous hands, an occasional ducking of corked faces in icy water,–such are the functions over which I preside.

For this period at least, pleasure ruled the Romans. Criminals could not be convicted or wars started. Each household would choose a King of the festival by lot to preside over their own parties and celebrations. Slaves would be served by their own masters who would dress informally, even wearing the traditional slaves hat, the pilleus. The people spent their time playing games, gambling, eating and drinking.


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Gifts were also given. Traditionally, they were pottery figures called sigilla and wax candles, purchased at the fair that marked the closing days of Saturnalia. However, as time passed, gifts became more ostentatious, so much so that legislation was necessary to prevent the less wealthy from beggaring themselves giving gifts they could ill afford.

The Origins of Saturnus’s Winter Feast.

During the Saturnalia, the god Saturn was 'released' to rule again for the festival. Photograph by Jean-Pol GRANDMONT

During the Saturnalia, the god Saturn was ‘released’ to rule again for the festival.
Photograph by Jean-Pol GRANDMONT

The origins of the festival are obscure, encompassing a need to celebrate the bounty of the harvest and the good things in life, whilst propitiating the dark and threatening forces of winter

According to legend, the Saturnalia  predated the foundation of Rome. The god Janus instigated the festival in gratitude for Saturnus’s legendary introduction of agriculture to Italy. Many features of the festival agree this origin. The name ‘Saturn’ is believed to derive from the Latin for sowing, satus. The timing of the festival corresponds with this. The Saturnalia was one of several harvest festivals celebrated in December. Originally, it was celebrated on the 17th December, midway between the Consualia  on the 15th and the Opalia on the 19th.

The ancient sources also associate with  a mythical golden age when food was available without the associated toil. During the saturnalia, according to Lucian,   ‘men may remember what life was like in my days, when all things grew without sowing or ploughing of theirs–no ears of corn, but loaves complete and meat ready cooked–, when wine flowed in rivers, and there were fountains of milk and honey; all men were good and all men were gold. Such is the purpose of this my brief reign; therefore the merry noise on every side, the song and the games; therefore the slave and the free as one.’

Elements of the festival support primitive Italic origins. The pottery figures of the sigillares, the fair traditionally held on the last day of the festival are transmuted sacrifices to Saturnus, pottery representations of the human heads once placed on the god’s altar. Likewise, the candles represent torches to light against the darkness of Saturnus’s chaos. Darkness represents the time before civilisation, the time of chaos which fits with the idea of misrule. But it also epitomises winter.

However, the development of Saturnalia was closely influenced by Greek ideas. The format of the festival, with its feasts and social inversion, bear a direct resemblance to those of the Cronia, a Greek harvest festival held in honour of the god Cronos, Saturn’s Greek counterpart.

Saturnalia: A Popular Roman Festival

Saturnalia began on the 17th December. According to Macrobius, only two days properly related to the rites of Saturn. But so popular were the festivities that they were often celebrated for a week, crossing over many other Roman midwinter festivals .

Augustus attempted to reduce the festival to its proper length by limiting it to three days, but according to Cassius Dio, Claudius once again extended the festival to five days.  Despite these official restrictions, many people continued adhering to the ancient tradition of seven days of festivities. 

Saturnalia and Christmas

Lighting candles is just one of the Saturnalia traditions that survive in Christmas festivities. Photograph by Stephane RICHARD

Lighting candles is just one of the Saturnalia traditions that survive in Christmas festivities.
Photograph by Stephane RICHARD

This popularity of this holiday probably explains why many continued to celebrate Saturnalia into the Christian era. The Chronicle of 354AD, a commentary on life in Rome at that time, used a figure celebrating Saturnalia as the emblem for December.

Yet even when people ceased to explicitly celebrate this Midwinter holiday, traces of Saturnalia’s festivities still remained. At the Feast of Fools, held on the 1st January in medieval France it was common for high and low officials to exchanging places during festivities. And today, we find the traditions of gift giving, candle lighting, and merry-making still survive in the celebrations of Christmas.

Resources

Cassius Dio. Roman History, 60.25. Accessed on December 2, 2013.

Encyclopaedia Britannica. Saturnalia. (2007).

Epictetus. Discords 1.25.8. Accessed on December 2, 2013.

Lucian. SaturnaliaAccessed on December 2, 2013.

University of Chicago. Macrobius, Saturnalia. Accessed on December 2, 2013.

Price, S and Kearns, E. The Oxford Dictionary of Classical Myth and Religion– ed. (2003). Oxford University Press.

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© Copyright 2013 Natasha Sheldon, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Past

Comments

  1. pok621 says

    Very good information when compared to most of the other subject material I’ve discovered. Continue the good work.

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