top of page

Saturnalia: Pre-Christmas Winter Solstice Festivals (Part 1)

The war on Christmas will soon be trending again as the world braces for Maria Carey's annual resurgence. Christmas has transcended the Christian world and risen to become the most popular holiday in the global West. Season's greetings, happy holidays, and merry Xmas are favored by the secular.

Before there was Christmas, Europeans celebrated several culturally distinct holidays. These holidays were all eventually replaced by Christmas when the Roman Catholic Church finally crushed Paganism in the Middle Ages. What exactly were these festivals, and in which ways are they similar to modern Christmas?

Saturnalia was a Roman winter holiday celebrated from

Saturnalia - Rome Loves to Party

Saturnalia was the most popular annual festival celebrated by the ancient Romans. On 17 December, they would pay tribute to Saturn. He was their god of sowing and seeds. His festival coincided with the Winter sowing season.

According to Livy, Saturnalia has its origins some time near the beginning of the fifth century BCE. There is some evidence of the festival being even older than that, though.

The festival was so popular that it was extended to a 7 day-long party. During Saturnalia, the streets of Rome were consumed in a raging party that rivals modern Mardi Gras.

Businesses, schools, and work of any kind was suspended during the festival. Everyone was expected to join the fun. No creed, social class, or age was excluded from the party.

During Saturnalia, people would greet each other with "Io Saturnalia". Some speculate that this is the origin for Santa's exclamation of "Ho, ho, ho".

Traditions of Saturnalia: Spot the Similarities

All slaves were temporarily freed during the festival. They would partake of the festivities as equals and return to servitude at the end.

Family gatherings were common during Saturnalia. People were free to eat and drink as much as they wanted without fear of judgement. Huge feasts also took place, as well as large public events.

At the temple of Saturn, several rituals took place. The first was the loosening of the wool-rope tied around the statue of Saturn's ankles. Symbolically, this freed Saturn to enjoy his party. Priests of Saturn would also sacrifice a pig as an offering to the god.

Leading up to Saturnalia, the temple of Saturn would sponsor gladiatorial combat. Gladiators who died during the games were brought to Saturn as sacrificial offerings.

Role-reversal was one of the foundational themes of Saturnalia. Those at the top of society would treat those beneath them as equals, and vice versa.

The lowliest or least-liked member of the household, often a slave, was elected the "Lord of Misrule". Their task was to organize festivities and be at the head of the chaotic partying.

Gambling was usually frowned upon in Roman society. During Saturnalia, however, it was encouraged. Just another way in which the social norms were reversed.

Gift-giving was a popular and essential part of Saturnalia. Taking place at the end of the festivities. People gave each-other gifts of candles, to represent the light of life, and Sigillaria statuettes. These statuettes often resembled mythological figures, fantastic beasts, or were comedic in nature.

Seneca the Younger wrote this in a letter to his friend, about Saturnalia:

"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."

Happy Saturnalia picture



Never miss a new story

Thanks for submitting!

bottom of page