December 17th - The "Saturnalia"
This day is for special religious observance, being the
first day of the Saturnalia, the Roman festival that honors Saturn (Cronus), and which is one of the most festive and uninhibited
that the ancient Romans celebrated.
began celebrated with a sacrifice at the Temple of Saturn in the Roman Forum and a public banquet, followed by private gift-giving,
continual partying, and a carnival atmosphere that overturned Roman social norms: The poet Catullus called it "the best
In Roman mythology, Saturn was an
agricultural deity who reigned over the world in the Golden Age, when humans enjoyed the spontaneous bounty of the earth without
labor in a state of social egalitarianism. The revelries of Saturnalia were supposed to reflect the conditions of the lost
mythical age, not all of them desirable.
late Republic, the private festivities of Saturnalia had expanded to seven days, but during the Imperial period contracted
variously to three to five days. Caligula extended it to five. In all periods it include the winter solstice.
The statue of Saturn at his main temple normally had its feet bound in
wool, which was removed for the holiday as an act of liberation. The official rituals were carried out according to "Greek
rite." The sacrifice was officiated by a priest whose head was uncovered. In Roman rite, priests sacrificed capite velato,
with head covered by a special fold of the toga. This procedure is usually explained by Saturn's assimilation with his Greek
counterpart Cronus, since the Romans often adopted and reinterpreted Greek myths, iconography, and even religious practices
for their own gods. But the covering of the priest's head may also be one of the Saturnalian reversals, the opposite of what
Following the sacrifice the Roman Senate
arranged a "lectisternium,"a ritual of Greek origin that typically involved placing a deity's image on a sumptuous
couch, as if he were present and actively participating in the festivities. A public banquet followed (convivium publicum).
The day was supposed to be a holiday from all forms of
work. Schools were closed, and exercise regimens were suspended. Courts were not in session, so no justice (punishment) was
administered, and no declaration of war could be made.
After the public rituals, observances continued at home. On December 18 and 19, which were also holidays from public business,
families conducted domestic rituals. They bathed early, and those with means sacrificed a suckling pig, a traditional offering
to an earth deity.
Saturnalia is the best-known
of several festivals in the Greco-Roman world characterized by role reversals and behavioral license. Slaves were treated
to a banquet of the kind usually enjoyed by their masters. Ancient sources differ on the circumstances: some suggest that
master and slave dined together, while others indicate that the slaves feasted first, or that the masters actually served
the food. The practice may have varied over time, and in any case slaves would still have prepared the meal.
Saturnalian license also permitted slaves to enjoy a pretense of disrespect
for their masters, and exempted them from punishment. It was a time for free speech: the Augustan poet Horace calls it "December
liberty." In two satires set during the Saturnalia, Horace has a slave offer sharp criticism to his master. But everyone
knew that the leveling of the social hierarchy was temporary and had limits; no social norms were ultimately threatened, because
the holiday would end.
The toga, the characteristic
garment of the male Roman citizen, was set aside in favor of the Greek synthesis, colourful "dinner clothes" otherwise
considered in poor taste for daytime wear. Romans of citizen status normally went about bare-headed, but for the Saturnalia
donned the pilleus, the conical felt cap that was the usual mark of a freedman. Slaves, who ordinarily were not entitled to
wear the pilleus, wore it as well, so that everyone was "pilleated" without distinction.
Gambling and dice-playing, normally prohibited or at least frowned upon,
were permitted for all, even slaves. Coins and nuts were the stakes.
The exchange of gifts was universally practiced. The Sigillaria on December 23 was a day of gift-giving.
Because gifts of value would mark social status contrary
to the spirit of the season, these were often the pottery or wax figurines called sigillaria made specially for the day, or
"gag gifts", of which Augustus was particularly fond.
In his many poems about the Saturnalia, Martial names both expensive and quite cheap gifts, including writing
tablets, dice, knucklebones, moneyboxes, combs, toothpicks, a hat, a hunting knife, an axe, various lamps, balls, perfumes,
pipes, a pig, a sausage, a parrot, tables, cups, spoons, items of clothing, statues, masks, books, and pets.
Gifts might be as costly as a slave or exotic animal, but Martial suggests
that token gifts of low intrinsic value inversely measure the high quality of a friendship.
Strenae, which were boughs to which were attached cakes or sweetmeats, were exchanged by
visitors and guests.
Wax candles (cerei) were also
given, symbolizing the quest for knowledge and truth (enlighenment).
The renewal of light and the coming of the new year was celebrated in the later Roman Empire at the Dies Natalis
of Sol Invictus, the "Birthday of the Unconquerable Sun," on December 25.
Gift-giving was not confined to the day of the Sigillaria. In some households, guests and
family members received gifts after the feast in which slaves had shared.
In a practice that might be compared to modern greeting cards, verses sometimes accompanied the gifts.
Martial has a collection of poems written as if to be attached to gifts. Catullus received a book of bad poems by "the
worst poet of all time" as a joke from a friend.
The phrase “io Saturnalia” was the characteristic shout or salutation of the festival, originally commencing
after the public banquet on the single day of December 17. It was a strongly emotive ritual exclamation or invocation, used
for instance in announcing triumph or celebrating Bacchus, but also to punctuate a joke.
As an observance of state religion, Saturnalia was supposed to have been held sixteen days
before the Kalends of January, on the oldest Roman religious calendar which the Romans believed to have been established by
the legendary founder Romulus and his successor Numa Pompilius. The day marked the dedication of the Temple to Saturn in the
Roman Forum in 497 BC.
When Julius Caesar had the
calendar reformed because it had fallen out of synch with the solar year, two days were added to the month, and Saturnalia
fell on December 17. It was felt, however, that the original day had thus been pushed earlier by two days, and so Saturnalia
was celebrated under Augustus as a three-day official holiday encompassing both dates.[
Imperial sources refer to a Saturnalicius princeps who ruled as master of ceremonies for
the proceedings. He was appointed by lot, and has been compared to the medieval Lord of Misrule at the Feast of Fools. His
capricious commands, such as "Sing naked" or "Throw him into cold water," had to be obeyed by the other
guests at the convivium: he creates and (mis)rules a chaotic and absurd world. The future emperor Nero is recorded as playing
the role in his youth.
Since this figure does not
appear in accounts from the Republican period, the princeps of the Saturnalia may have developed as a satiric response to
Rome's transition from a participatory republic to imperial monarchy under a princeps, the title assumed by the first emperor
Augustus to avoid the hated connotations of the word "king" (rex).
Finally, unable to prevent the people's natural festive inclinations at this time of year, early Christian
leaders moved Christmas to December and claimed the celebration for their own