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"Saturnalia", by Antoine Callet (1783)
The ancient Romans honored the god Saturn in a midwinter festival known as Saturnalia. Many of the customs associated with Saturnalia reversed ordinary social rules and roles.
Early Christian writers disapproved of this rowdy Roman revelry. Nevertheless, some of the customs associated with Saturnalia later attached themselves to the celebration of Christmas.
Saturn and His Festival
Some scholars believe that the Romans borrowed Saturn from the Greeks by simply exchanging the deity's Greek name, Kronos, for the Roman name, Saturn. In addition, they assigned him a new, Roman history. Others believe that he evolved from a minor Etruscan god of agriculture.
Scholars debate the meaning of the Roman god's name. Some believe the word "saturn" comes from the Latin verb for "to sow," whose root is sat. Others, however, think it evolved from saturo, which means "to fill" or "to satisfy."
Bas-relief depicting the god Saturn
(Rome, 2nd-century AD)
According to Roman mythology, Saturn ruled over the kingdom of Latium, the region surrounding Rome, as its first king during its golden age. He established the first laws and taught human beings agriculture.
In this era of joy and plenty, people lived together in harmony and shared equally in the earth's bounty.
Saturn holding a scythe in his right hand.
(fresco, House of the Dioscuri at Pompeii)
The Romans honored Saturn as the patron of agriculture and of civilized life. They held his festival at the end of the autumn sowing season when cold weather arrived in earnest.
In the early years of the Roman Republic Saturnalia took place on December 17. At the close of the first century A . D ., however, the celebrations had stretched into a full week of fun ending around December 23.
Many of the customs associated with Saturnalia recalled the equality and abundance that characterized Saturn's reign on earth. Lucian, a second-century Greco-Roman writer, drew up a set of rules summarizing proper conduct during Saturnalia. Chief among these rules was the decree that
"all men shall be equal, slave and free, rich and poor, one with another."
This temporary equality was especially apparent at the banquets characteristic of this Roman holiday. During the rest of the year the seating arrangements, portions, and service offered at Roman feasts reflected differences in wealth and social rank among the guests.
Lucian's rules for Saturnalian banquets, however, neatly erased these inequalities. At a Saturnalian feast:
Every man shall take place as chance may direct; dignities and birth and wealth shall give no precedence. All shall be served with the same wine. . . . Every man's portion of meat shall be alike. When the rich man shall feast his slaves, let his friends serve with him.
[Miles, 1990, 166-67]
How the Romans Celebrated Saturnalia
During Saturnalia, work and business came to a halt. Schools and courts of law closed, and the normal social patterns were suspended. People decorated their homes with wreaths and other greenery, and shed their traditional togas in favor of colorful clothes known as synthesis.
Even slaves did not have to work during Saturnalia, but were allowed to participate in the festivities; in some cases, they sat at the head of the table while their masters served them.
The main source for this custom is early Roman tragic poet Accius (170 BCE) who was cited again by Macrobius:
In most of Greece, and above all at Athens, men celebrate in honor of Saturn a festival which they always call the festival of Cronos. The day is kept a holiday, and in country and in town all usually hold joyful feasts, at which each man waits on his own slaves. And so it is with us. Thus from Greece that custom has been handed down, and slaves dine with their masters at that time.
Instead of working, Romans spent Saturnalia gambling, singing, playing music, feasting, socializing and giving each other gifts. Wax taper candles called cerei were common gifts during Saturnalia, to signify light returning after the solstice.
On the last day of Saturnalia celebrations, known as the Sigillaria, many Romans gave their friends and loved ones small terracotta figurines, which may have referred back to older celebrations involving human sacrifice.
Terracotta statuette of a man, 750–600 B.C.
Saturnalia was by far the jolliest Roman holiday; the Roman poet Catullus famously described it as “the best of times.”
So riotous were the festivities that the Roman author Pliny reportedly built a soundproof room so that he could work during the raucous celebrations.
Temple of Saturn and Other Saturnalia Customs
Constructed in the fourth century A.D. to replace an earlier temple, the Temple of Saturn in Rome served as the ceremonial center of later Saturnalia celebrations. On the first day of the festivities, a young pig would often be publicly sacrificed at the temple, which was located in the northwest corner of the Roman Forum.
Temple of Saturn, Rome
The cult statue of Saturn in the temple traditionally had woolen bonds tied around his feet, but during Saturnalia these bonds were loosened to symbolize the god’s liberation. In many Roman households, a "mock king" was chosen: the Saturnalicius princeps, or “leader of Saturnalia,” sometimes also called the “Lord of Misrule.”
Usually a lowlier member of the household, this figure was responsible for making mischief during the celebrations — insulting guests, wearing crazy clothing, chasing women and girls, etc. The idea was that he ruled over chaos, rather than the normal Roman order.
The common holiday custom of hiding coins or other small objects in cakes is one of many dating back to Saturnalia, as this was a method of choosing the mock king.
How Saturnalia Led to Christmas
Thanks to the Roman Empire’s conquests in Britain and the rest of Europe from the second century B.C. to the fourth century A.D. — and their suppression of older seasonal rites practiced by the Celts and other groups — today’s Western cultures derive many of their traditional celebrations of midwinter from Saturnalia.
The Bible does not give a date for Jesus’ birth; in fact, some theologians have concluded he was probably born in spring, as suggested by references to shepherds and sheep in the Nativity story.
But by the fourth century A.D., Western Christian churches settled on celebrating Christmas on December 25, which allowed them to incorporate the holiday with Saturnalia and other popular pagan midwinter traditions. Pagans and Christians co-existed during this period, and this likely represented an effort to convince the remaining pagan Romans to accept Christianity as Rome’s official religion.
Before the end of the fourth century, many of the traditions of Saturnalia — including giving gifts, singing, lighting candles, feasting and merrymaking — had become absorbed by the traditions of Christmas as many of us know them today.