marks the first day of Saturnalia,
the famously lascivious Roman harvest and
solstice festival. It was first celebrated on this
date—accounting for a couple of changes of calendars—in 496 BC. Saturnalia was the Roman feast of Saturn,
the god of Harvest, a dies festus,
a legal holiday when no public business could be conducted. At various points during the Republic
and Empire festivities extended over seven, three, and finally five
a long time, all I knew about Saturnalia was that when I was in Cheyenne East High School the Latin Club nerds plastered the school
with posters reading Io Saturnalia! Which roughly
translated to “way to go, big fella!” or something. They also had a slave auction fundraiser in the lunchroom where leering gym
teachers bought the comeliest girls and
likeliest boys draped in their mothers’ bed sheets. Kind of creepy,
when you think about it.
as a student of all things religious, I have since learned a thing
or two about it.
is just one of the many festivals common in Europe and elsewhere in the Northern
Hemisphere around the period of the solstice. Unlike others, it is a harvest festival, which seems strange until you remember that Rome not
only had a pleasant Mediterranean climate
but was in a period of historic warming
prior the Little Ice Age, the onset
of which helped plunge the continent into the Dark Ages. But
that’s another story.
public ritual of the holiday was observed at the Temple of Saturn, one of the most important buildings in the Forum. A lectisternium,
a ceremonial couch, was set up
before the Temple and the statue of Saturn was unbound—the rest of the
year he was tied up because of his unfortunate habit of eating people. He was depicted as a semi-depraved old man caring a harvesting
scythe. Christians would later
adapt that image to Father Time
associated with the celebration of the New
Year. A feast was laid out for the god before the
couch so that he wouldn’t get hungry and revert to his nasty cannibalism.
public ritual and spectacle aside what made Saturnalia especially popular with
Roman plebeians and the large
population of slaves were the carnival-like traditions. Customs from the earlier Greek festival of Dionysus—the Roman Bacchus—were incorporated into the celebrations.
Social norms of the rest of
the year were set aside. Private parties
and public revelry were the order of
the day. Restrictions on gambling were loosened and even slaves
could try their luck at games such as casting
knuckle bones, many trying to win enough money to buy their freedom. Exchanging small gifts—saturnalia et sigillaricia—either made by hand or purchased at special
holiday markets was a
highlight. Slaves were exempted from punishment by
their masters, in theory at least.
The most telling was the turn-about feature of the celebration. Slaves and common laborers were supposed to
be served feasts by their masters and were free to express disrespect.
Sometimes complete role reversal
With the rules of public decorum suspended, it was
a very good time for wine merchants
and public drunkenness was
common. So were sexual hi-jinks, including usually forbidden mixing among classes, master and slave.
Around 250 AD Emperor
Aurelian created the new official cult of Sol Invictus, a Sun deity which
may have borrowed from the Persian
warrior cult of Mithra, which celebrated the return of
the Sun on December 25, just after the conclusion of Saturnalia.
This led to the
often told tale is that the early Christians,
still persecuted, hid their
celebration of the Feast of the Nativity
during Saturnalia to avoid detection. The trouble was that the date for that
celebration was not yet fixed. In fact, it was often celebrated in the Spring—the lambing season when shepherds would have been in the fields on the lookout for wolves. Even
when Christmas was settled on December 25, it was two days after the customary
end of Saturnalia but did coincide with the feast of Sol Invictus. However later Emperors began to suppress the
Sun festival with the rise of Christianity, around 390 AD. The first written reference to a festival of Natalis Invicti was the Philocalian calendar of 354. But a spring celebration of the nativity
persisted more generally for another 100 years by which time the festival of
Sol Invictus was banned and reduced to a rural
The early church did seem to want to mount a feast
or festival that competed with the various pagan
solstice festivals and to which locals could adapt some of their beloved customs. At the same time, the Church went through
periods of vigorously trying to stamp out vestiges of those same pagan
festivals. For this reason, the exchange
of gifts was outlawed through much of the early Middle Ages.
But customs did persist. Although most of the trapping of Christmas were borrowed from the Nordic Yule, Celtic, and
Druidic customs, the cultural influence of Rome’s long occupation of Britain can be seen in the carnival like observation of Christmas
there up to the Puritan era which included the same role-reversals,
public revelry, and drinking. The vestiges of it can be seen on Boxing Day, when masters give presents
to servants and often serve them meals on the day after Christmas.
Today’s song, The Feast of Saturnalia–A Roman Slave’s
Carol was created a tongue-in-cheek
joke by the scholarly Ashmolean
Latin Inscriptions Project and members of Oxford University Faculty of Classics.