Fall has come and gone. The leaves changed color, and the temperature is dropping. School is in full swing and winter break is on the back of every student’s mind. And of course, we’ve already had the ability to do our Christmas shopping, three weeks before Halloween. It’s the Holiday Season. We get Halloween, then Thanksgiving, and the big mother, Christmas, all topped off with New Year’s Eve. Our party season is little match for the Roman circuit though, and they had a multitude of festivals during this quarter of the year. They had the Roman Games, the Plebeian Games, other festivals to various gods and goddesses, and the Saturnalia, going from Dec 18-23. It wasn’t just the fall and early winter though; a full ⅓ of the Roman calendar was dedicated to holidays, which make one wonder how they even had the time to conquer the known world. The most interesting holiday during this season was the Saturnalia; a day that emphasized humility, and a literal inversion of the social order.
The Saturnalia is one of the longer historical festivals, stretching back at least to the Early Republic, if not further. The festival underwent various changes over the centuries, with Augustus restricting it to three days. Like other holy days (holy days, holidays, get it?) It was a public event with no official business being conducted. As the name suggests, it celebrated Saturn, here in his role as an agricultural deity. After the Romans have planted their crops in the fall, the Saturnalia comes to honor the god of sowing. Makes sense. The Saturnalia was one of the most popular holidays—who doesn’t love a good drunken revel—and only fell out of active celebration in the 5th century CE, with the rise of Christianity as the state religion.
While the original celebration fell on a single day, throughout its history it was celebrated anywhere from 3-7 days. As one would expect, religious rites were performed at the Temple of Saturn, including an animal sacrifice. The cult statue of Saturn normally had feet bound in wool, but these were loosened on December 17 to symbolize the god’s liberation. After the sacrifice, there was a public banquet, including a special lectisternium, where an image of the god had a seat, as if at the banquet with them. Typical holiday festivities went on afterwards, both publicly and privately, including feasting, drinking, more drinking, partying, and of course, drinking.
What makes this holiday stand out though, is the role-reversal activities. Slaves became masters and masters became slaves; slaves were not required to work, were allowed dice and the ability to gamble, could wear their master’s clothes, and were even served meals by their masters. In some respects, the social order was suspended during the holiday; slaves and freemen, senators and common folk, patrician and plebeian were all “equal” during the Saturnalia. It was a time when you did not have to worry so much about social restrictions or proper behavior—and according to Seneca the Younger, few did.
It is the month of December, and yet the city is at this very moment in a sweat. License is given to the general merrymaking. Everything resounds with mighty preparations, – as if the Saturnalia differed at all from the usual business day! So true it is that the difference is nil, that I regard as correct the remark of the man who said: “Once December was a month; now it is a year.”
If I had you with me, I should be glad to consult you and find out what you think should be done, – whether we ought to make no change in our daily routine, or whether, in order not to be out of sympathy with the ways of the public, we should dine in gayer fashion and doff the toga. As it is now, we Romans have changed our dress for the sake of pleasure and holiday-making, though in former times that was only customary when the State was disturbed and had fallen on evil days. I am sure that, if I know you aright, playing the part of an umpire you would have wished that we should be neither like the liberty-capped throng in all ways, nor in all ways unlike them; unless, perhaps, this is just the season when we ought to lay down the law to the soul, and bid it be alone in refraining from pleasures just when the whole mob has let itself go in pleasures; for this is the surest proof which a man can get of his own constancy, if he neither seeks the things which are seductive and allure him to luxury, nor is led into them.
~Epistle 18, On Festivals and Fasting
Formal wear such as the toga were put aside in favor of common wear, and many adorned the pilleum, normally a symbol of a manumitted slave, which fit well with the whole “freedom” and role-reversal aspects of the holiday.
The Saturnalia was a time of warmth, of seeing friends and family. It was a holiday of merry-making and gift-giving. If it sounds familiar, that’s because it is. Many elements of the Saturnalia have become incorporated into the typical Christmas celebration. It was a festival of light leading to the winter solstice (on Dec 25th, no less). Gifts were simple and came from the heart. The Romans even sometimes gave gag gifts, all in the spirit of good fun. Families gathered and ate well; some would have suckling pig, an appropriately “earthy” meal for the deity.
Of course, many religious celebrations accumulate aspects from cultures around them. Christmas has elements from the Saturnalia and other traditions, and likewise, the Saturnalia evolved over time. As we move into the holiday spirit, maybe reflect on how traditions are started, molded, and continued throughout history. The more things change, the more they stay the same; we have inherited many things from the cradle of Western Civilization, how we celebrate our holidays is no different. So get partying like it’s 99….BC!
Happy Saturnalia and Winter Solstice.