Saturnalia was THE most important Roman festival. Heavy on feasting, fun and gifts, it was originally celebrated in Ancient Rome for only a day around 17 December (today!), but it was so popular it expanded into a week or even longer, despite Augustus’ efforts to reduce it to three days, and Caligula’s, to five. Like today’s Christmas, this holy day (feriae publicae) had a serious origin: to honour the god of sowing, Saturn. But also like modern Christmas, it was a festival day (dies festus). After sacrifice at the temple, there was a public banquet, which Livy says was introduced in 217 BC. Afterwards, according to the poet Macrobius, the celebrants shouted ‘Io, Saturnalia‘ at a riotous feast in the temple.
Modern mid-winter habits echo Roman conspicuous eating and drinking, and visiting friends and giving gifts, particularly of wax candles (cerei), and earthenware figurines (sigillaria). Masters served meals to their slaves who were permitted the unaccustomed luxuries of leisure and gambling. A member of the familia (family plus slaves) was appointed Saturnalicius princeps, roughly equivalent to the Lord of Misrule.
The poet Catullus describes Saturnalia as ‘the best of days’ while Seneca complains that the ‘whole mob has let itself go in pleasures’. Pliny the Younger writes that he retired to his room while the rest of the household celebrated. Sound familiar?
Macrobius described a banquet of pagan literary celebrities in Rome which classicists date to between 383 and 430 AD. So Saturnalia was alive and well under Christian emperors, but no longer as an official religious holiday.
But alongside ran the Dies Natalis Solis Invicti (the birthday of the ‘unconquerable sun’), a festival celebrating the renewal of light and the coming of the new year and which took place on 25 December. By the middle of the fourth century AD, the dominant Christian religion had integrated the Dies Natalis into their celebration of Christmas. So it seems that Saturnalia wasn’t the official ancestor of Christmas after all. Never mind.
Read ‘Saturnalia surprise‘ about how the Mitelae were celebrating one year…
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