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YouPlay Celebrates...Saturnalia


By Jessie

In the spirit of the holiday season, I thought it might be interesting to have a look at a variety of international festivals of cultural and religious significance that are held around December. First off, let’s look back through history to the ancient Roman civilisation for a fascinating glimpse of where these rituals began. My colleague and fellow YouPlay blogger Christine Lovatt advised me of a fascinating celebration called Saturnalia…


Origins of Saturnalia

Saturnalia was the feast at which the ancient Romans paid tribute to the god Saturn. In the old Roman calendar, December (the tenth month) marked the end of the agricultural year, traditionally a time of cultural and religious significance. By mid-December, the harvest had been stored, the seeds for next year’s crop had been sowed and the wine distilled. It was time for the Roman people to cease their back-breaking work for a much deserved-rest, culminating in a joyous celebration. Originally, this feast was held on the 17th December; however, over the years it was expanded to encompass a whole week (despite the efforts of Augustus to reduce it to three days, and Caligula, to five).


Io Saturnalia! Io bona Saturnalia!

Saturnalia was a major festival renowned for debauchery and riotous behaviour. One of the most arresting rituals of the holiday was how the social order was inverted so that slaves were treated as equals. Slaves were exempt from punishment and treated their masters with disrespect. They did not have to work and were allowed to gamble, wear their master’s clothes and be waited on at mealtimes. (No wonder the festival quickly expanded from one day to a whole week!) The slaves also joined in the feasting, either at a banquet before, with, or served by their masters where an effigy of the god Saturn was probably one of the guests.

The toga was discarded for less formal, more colourful clothing (called the synthesis) which emphasized the blurring of social class distinctions. Also worn was the pileus, a peaked felt cap normally worn by the emancipated slave that symbolized the freedom of the season. Apart from the common public rites and sacrifices, celebrations included a school holiday, the making and giving of small presents (saturnalia et sigillaricia) and a special market (sigillaria). Visits to friends and family and gift-giving were popular activities, particularly gifts of wax candles (cerei) and earthenware figures (sigillaria). The poet Catullus described Saturnalia as “the best of days”.

The streets of Rome were filled with people crying “Io, Saturnalia! Io bona Saturnalia!” (Hurrah for Saturnalia! Hurrah, good Saturnalia!) Drunken crowds blundered and stumbled about and outrageous public spectacles were traditionally held in the coliseums and arenas (sounds like last year’s Christmas celebrations here in Australia at Bondi Beach!)

Another Saturnalian tradition was to cast lots among the people to elect a Saturnalicious Princeps (‘King of Saturnalia’ or ‘Lord of Misrule’) as a representative of the god Saturn to rule over the festival. Each family also chose a mock Lord of Misrule to preside over the household. The orders issued by the Saturnalicious Princeps were to be obeyed no matter how bizarre, but luckily one of the main duties of the mock king was to ensure all in their power had an entertaining time.

Not everyone was impressed with the excesses of the festival however, with the philosopher Seneca complaining that the “whole mob had let itself go in pleasures”. Pliny the Younger wrote that he retired to his room while the rest of the household celebrated and Cicero fled to the countryside. The trepidation expressed by these elder Roman statesmen may have stemmed from the fact that Saturnalia was also the season for murder. The Catiline conspirators intended to kill many important senators and set fire to the city during the disorder and chaos of the Saturnalia festivities.


Religious Ceremony

Saturnalia was certainly a time of riotous celebration but it was also a sacred day when ritualistic rites were performed by the priests of Rome. Each year all the citizens gathered together at the dedicated temple to watch the hollow wooden statue of Saturn be filled with fresh olive oil, a symbolic act and a reminder of the god’s agricultural significance. During the year, Saturn’s ankles were bound with woollen strips to symbolize his subserviency to Jupiter, but during the Saturnalia, these bonds were ceremoniously loosened (just like the slaves who were allowed a period of freedom from their masters).  

After the ceremony, it was time for sacrifice. Although humans were once sacrificed to the gods it slowly became the custom to substitute animals and effigies. Most families would offer a goat or a pig, with the meat from the slaughtered carcass split equally between the god, the priests of the temple and the household. Small terra-cotta figures (sigalla) were also sacrificed, probably as a vestige of earlier human sacrificial rites. 
After the sacrifices, the festivities began. Seneca declared that “all Rome went mad” during the Saturnalia. Cross-dressing, parties, masquerades and more sinister, depraved activities were enthusiastically embraced with abandon.


Similarities with Modern Festivals

Saturnalia coincides with the Winter Solstice, a cosmic event of pagan significance in our modern Gregorian calendar. In the Julian calendar used by the Romans, the Winter Solstice (Brumalia) occurred on the 25th. Apart from the gift-giving and feasting, there are other similarities between the ancient customs of Saturnalia and our modern-day Christmas. Just like today, the Romans decorated their homes and communities with glowing candles and wreaths of holly, cypress and laurel. They also held huge public banquets for all the people of Rome, similar to our modern ethos of giving and focusing on acts of kindness and charity. Saturnalia is still celebrated today by Wiccans and those of pagan faith. The Latin author Publius Papinius Statius wrote of Saturnalia:

“Time shall not fade that sacred day, so long as the hills of Latium stand, so long, father Tiber, as your city of Rome shall stand and the Capitol remain on earth.”

And the Saturnalia did continue to be celebrated, firstly as Brumalia, down to the Christian era, when, by the middle of the fourth century AD, its rituals had become absorbed in the celebration of Christmas.


Read more about Saturnalia by following these links:



3 Responses to

YouPlay Celebrates...Saturnalia

greenpeas said:
December 28, 2007 at 10:20 AM

I think that is the best explanation of Saturnalia I've ever read. You make the Roman come back alive as ordinary human beings...just like us. We even still sacrifice the pig for its ham. Thanks Jessie...Merry & Happy New Year

perilous said:
January 10, 2008 at 12:36 PM


Thankyou for your wonderful explanation of saturnalia and its association with Christendom's "Christmas" I think it will help other readers be a little more understanding of those who prefer not to celebrate Christ's birth at this time of year. Thank you again, Perilous


Zeta said:
January 26, 2008 at 5:36 PM


it colud be put in a better way for yonger children to read!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!