Saturnalia was an ancient Roman festival in honor of the deity Saturn, held on December 17 of the Julian calendar and later expanded with festivities through December 23. The holiday was celebrated with a sacrifice at the Temple of Saturn, in the Roman Forum, and a public banquet, followed by private gift-giving, continual partying, and a carnival atmosphere that overturned Roman social norms: gambling was permitted, and masters provided table service for their slaves. The poet Catullus called it “the best of days.”
In Roman mythology, Saturn was an agricultural deity who was said to have reigned over the world in the Golden Age, when humans enjoyed the spontaneous bounty of the earth without labour in a state of social egalitarianism. The revelries of Saturnalia were supposed to reflect the conditions of the lost mythical age, not all of them desirable. The Greek equivalent was the Kronia.
Although probably the best-known Roman holiday, Saturnalia as a whole is not described from beginning to end in any single ancient source. Modern understanding of the festival is pieced together from several accounts dealing with various aspects. The Saturnalia was the dramatic setting of the multivolume work of that name by Macrobius, a Latin writer from late antiquity who is the major source for information about the holiday. In one of the interpretations in Macrobius’s work, Saturnalia is a festival of light leading to the winter solstice, with the abundant presence of candles symbolizing the quest for knowledge and truth. The renewal of light and the coming of the new year was celebrated in the later Roman Empire at the Dies Natalis of Sol Invictus, the “Birthday of the Unconquerable Sun,” on December 25.
The popularity of Saturnalia continued into the third and fourth centuries AD, and as the Roman Empire came under Christian rule, some of its customs may have influenced the seasonal celebrations surrounding Christmas and the New Year.
Saturnalia is the best-known of several festivals in the Greco-Roman world characterized by role reversals and behavioral license. Slaves were treated to a banquet of the kind usually enjoyed by their masters. Ancient sources differ on the circumstances: some suggest that master and slave dined together, while others indicate that the slaves feasted first, or that the masters actually served the food.
The Sigillaria on December 23 was a day of gift-giving. Because gifts of value would mark social status contrary to the spirit of the season, these were often the pottery or wax figurines called sigillaria made specially for the day, candles, or “gag gifts”, of which Augustus was particularly fond. Children received toys as gifts. In his many poems about the Saturnalia, Martial names both expensive and quite cheap gifts, including writing tablets, dice, knucklebones, moneyboxes, combs, toothpicks, a hat, a hunting knife, an axe, various lamps, balls, perfumes, pipes, a pig, a sausage, a parrot, tables, cups, spoons, items of clothing, statues, masks, books, and pets. Gifts might be as costly as a slave or exotic animal, but Martial suggests that token gifts of low intrinsic value inversely measure the high quality of a friendship.
Patrons or “bosses” might pass along a gratuity (sigillaricium) to their poorer clients or dependents to help them buy gifts. Some emperors were noted for their devoted observance of the Sigillaria. In a practice that might be compared to modern greeting cards, verses sometimes accompanied the gifts. Martial has a collection of poems written as if to be attached to gifts. Catullus received a book of bad poems by “the worst poet of all time” as a joke from a friend.
Imperial sources refer to a Saturnalicius princeps who ruled as master of ceremonies for the proceedings. He was appointed by lot, and has been compared to the medieval Lord of Misrule at the Feast of Fools. His capricious commands, such as “Sing naked” or “Throw him into cold water,” had to be obeyed by the other guests at the convivium: he creates and (mis)rules a chaotic and absurd world. The future emperor Nero is recorded as playing the role in his youth. The Saturnalia reflects the contradictory nature of the deity Saturn himself: “there are joyful and utopian aspects of careless well-being side by side with disquieting elements of threat and danger”.
As a deity of agricultural bounty, Saturn embodied prosperity and wealth in general. The name of his consort Ops meant “wealth, resources”. Her festival, Opalia, was celebrated on December 19.
Saturn also had a less benevolent aspect. Another of his consorts was Lua, sometimes called Lua Saturni (“Saturn’s Lua”) and identified with Lua Mater, “Mother Destruction”, a goddess in whose honor the weapons of enemies killed in war were burned, perhaps in expiation. Saturn’s chthonic nature connected him to the underworld and its ruler Dis Pater, the Roman equivalent of Greek Plouton (Pluto in Latin) who was also a god of hidden wealth.
In sources of the third century AD and later, Saturn is recorded as receiving dead gladiators as offerings (munera) during or near the Saturnalia. These gladiator events, ten days in all throughout December, were presented mainly by the quaestors and sponsored with funds from the treasury of Saturn. The practice of gladiator munera was criticized by Christian apologists as a form of human sacrifice. Although there is no evidence of this practice during the Republic, the offering of gladiators led to later theories that the primeval Saturn had demanded human victims. Macrobius says that Dis Pater was placated with human heads and Saturn with sacrificial victims consisting of men (virorum victimis). During the visit of Hercules to Italy, the civilizing demigod insisted that the practice be halted and the ritual reinterpreted. Instead of heads to Dis Pater, the Romans were to offer effigies or masks (oscilla); a mask appears in the representation of Saturnalia in the Calendar of Filocalus. Since the Greek word phota meant both vir (man) and lumina (lights), candles were a substitute offering to Saturn for the light of life. The figurines that were exchanged as gifts (sigillaria) may also have represented token substitutes.
In The Golden Bough, J.G. Frazer surmises that the King of the Saturnalia was originally a scapegoat victim who was killed as a human sacrifice to Saturn at the end of his festival. The Neoplatonic philosopher Porphyry took an allegorical view of the Saturnalia. He saw the festival’s theme of liberation and dissolution as representing the “freeing of souls into immortality”—an interpretation that Mithraists may also have followed, since they included many slaves and freedmen. According to Porphyry, the Saturnalia occurred near the winter solstice because the sun enters Capricorn, the astrological house of Saturn, at that time. In the Saturnalia of Macrobius, the proximity of the Saturnalia to the winter solstice leads to an exposition of solar monotheism, the belief that the Sun (see Sol Invictus) ultimately encompasses all divinities as one. Perceived relations among the Mithraic mysteries, the Dies Natalis Solis Invicti (the “Birthday of the Unconquered Sun”) on December 25, and the Christian Nativity as celebrated in December are a matter of long-standing and complex scholarly debate.
The Mishna and Talmud (Avodah Zara 8a) describe a pagan festival called Saturna which occurs eight days before the winter solstice. It is followed eight days after the solstice with a festival called Kalenda. The Talmud ascribes the origins of this festival to Adam, who saw that the days were getting shorter and thought it was punishment for his sin. He was afraid that the world was returning to the chaos and emptiness that existed before creation. He sat and fasted for eight days. Once he saw that the days were getting longer again he realized that this was the natural cycle of the world, so made eight days of celebration. The Talmud states that this festival was later turned into a pagan festival.
Unlike several Roman religious festivals which were particular to cult sites in the city, the prolonged seasonal celebration of Saturnalia at home could be held anywhere in the Empire. Saturnalia continued as a secular celebration long after it was removed from the official calendar. As William Warde Fowler noted, Saturnalia “has left its traces and found its parallels in great numbers of medieval and modern customs, occurring about the time of the winter solstice.”
A number of scholars view aspects of the Saturnalia festival as the origin of some later Christmas customs, particularly the practice of gift giving, which was suppressed by the Catholic Church during the Middle Ages. Some say that during the ancient Roman Saturnalia, human-shaped delicacies were consumed and jovial singing was performed in the streets – a precursor to modern gingerbread men and caroling.