From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.
Saturnalia was the feast at which the the Romans commemorated the dedication of the temple of the god Saturn, which took place on 17 December. Over the years, it expanded to a whole week, up to 23 December. In the vagaring Roman calendar the Winter Solstice fell in this period; in imperial times that event was celebrated in honour of Sol Invictus and put on 25 December by emperor Aurelian in 274, so after the Saturnalia.
The Saturnalia originally were celebrated with a public banquet. It became one of the most popular Roman festivals which lead to more tomfoolery, marked chiefly by having masters and slaves switch places, which led to widespread drinking and debauchery, so that among Christians the (lower case) word “saturnalia” came to mean “orgy”.
The customary greeting for the occasion is a “Io, Saturnalia!” io (pronounced “yo”) being a Latin interjection related to “ho” (as in “Ho, praise to Saturn”).
Saturnalia’s relation to Christmas
It is a widely-held theory that Christians in the fourth century assigned December 25th (the Winter Solstice on the Julian calendar) as Christ’s birthday (and thus Christmas) because pagans already observed this day as a holiday. This would sidestep the problem of eliminating an already popular holiday while Christianizing the population. It is also possible to see it as early Christians replacing the Pagan celebration in an act of triumphalism. However, others claim that early Christians independently came up with the date of December 25th based on a Jewish tradition of the “integral age” of the Jewish prophets (the idea that the prophets of Israel died on the same dates as their birth or conception), and a miscalculation of the date of Jesus’ death. It is even sometimes claimed that Aurelian moved the feast of Sol Invictus to December 25th to co-opt the Christian celebration.
The Romans also practiced many traditions similar to Christmas; specifically the “Christmas tree”. The Romans often cut down evergreens and decorated them to pay homage to Saturn, the god of farming. This was to honor the fact that the evergreens remained alive during the harshness of winter. It was also traditional for Romans to exchange gifts during this holiday. These gifts were customarily made of silver, although nearly anything could be given as a gift for the occasion. Several epigrams by the poet Martial survive, seemingly crafted as riddling gift-tags for gifts of food. The medieval celebration of the Feast of Fools was another continuation of Saturnalia into the Christian era.
Saturnalia in Literature
Seneca the Younger wrote about Rome during Saturnalia around CE 50:
It is now the month of December, when the greatest part of the city is in a bustle. Loose reins are given to public dissipation; everywhere you may hear the sound of great preparations, as if there were some real difference between the days devoted to Saturn and those for transacting business….Were you here, I would willingly confer with you as to the plan of our conduct; whether we should eve in our usual way, or, to avoid singularity, both take a better supper and throw off the toga.
Or, in the original:
December est mensis: cum maxime civitas sudat. Ius luxuriae publice datum est; ingenti apparatu sonant omnia, tamquam quicquam inter Saturnalia intersit et dies rerum agendarum [….] Si te hic haberem, libenter tecum conferrem quid existimares esse faciendum, utrum nihil ex cotidiana consuetudine movendum an, ne dissidere videremur cum publicis moribus, et hilarius cenandum et exuendam togam.
From Epistulae morales ad Lucilium, Epistula XVIII
Macrobius in the 5th century wrote a book of fiction called Saturnalia, about the great Roman intellectuals meeting, celebrating, and discussing, and set at the time of the Saturnalia; we learn a lot about the traditions of that day.