Nobles romains pendant la fête des Saturnales. (Photo by API/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)
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Introduction

Saturnalia, held in mid-December, is an ancient Roman pagan festival honoring the agricultural god Saturn. Saturnalia celebrations are the source of many of the traditions we now associate with Christmas.

Saturnalia, the most popular holiday on the ancient Roman calendar, derived from older farming-related rituals of midwinter and the winter solstice, especially the practice of offering gifts or sacrifices to the gods during the winter sowing season.

The pagan celebration of Saturn, the Roman god of agriculture and time, began as a single day, but by the late Republic (133-31 B.C.) it had expanded to a weeklong festival beginning December 17. (On the Julian calendar, which the Romans used at the time, the winter solstice fell on December 25.)

During Saturnalia, work and business came to a halt. Schools and courts of law closed, and the normal social patterns were suspended.

People decorated their homes with wreaths and other greenery, and shed their traditional togas in favor of colorful clothes known as synthesis. Even slaves did not have to work during Saturnalia, but were allowed to participate in the festivities; in some cases, they sat at the head of the table while their masters served them.

Instead of working, Romans spent Saturnalia gambling, singing, playing music, feasting, socializing and giving each other gifts. Wax taper candles called cerei were common gifts during Saturnalia, to signify light returning after the solstice.

On the last day of Saturnalia celebrations, known as the Sigillaria, many Romans gave their friends and loved ones small terracotta figurines known as signillaria, which may have referred back to older celebrations involving human sacrifice.

Saturnalia was by far the jolliest Roman holiday; the Roman poet Catullus famously described it as “the best of times.” So riotous were the festivities that the Roman author Pliny reportedly built a soundproof room so that he could work during the raucous celebrations.

Constructed in the fourth century A.D. to replace an earlier temple, the Temple of Saturn in Rome served as the ceremonial center of later Saturnalia celebrations. On the first day of the festivities, a young pig would often be publicly sacrificed at the temple, which was located in the northwest corner of the Roman Forum.

The cult statue of Saturn in the temple traditionally had woolen bonds tied around his feet, but during Saturnalia these bonds were loosened to symbolize the god’s liberation.

In many Roman households, a mock king was chosen: the Saturnalicius princeps, or “leader of Saturnalia,” sometimes also called the “Lord of Misrule.”  Usually a lowlier member of the household, this figure was responsible for making mischief during the celebrations—insulting guests, wearing crazy clothing, chasing women and girls, etc.

The idea was that he ruled over chaos, rather than the normal Roman order. The common holiday custom of hiding coins or other small objects in cakes is one of many dating back to Saturnalia, as this was a method of choosing the mock king.

Thanks to the Roman Empire’s conquests in Britain and the rest of Europe from the second century B.C. to the fourth century A.D.—and their suppression of older seasonal rites practiced by the Celts and other groups—today’s Western cultures derive many of their traditional celebrations of midwinter from Saturnalia.

The Christian holiday of Christmas, especially, owes many of its traditions to the ancient Roman festival, including the time of year Christmas is celebrated. The Bible does not give a date for Jesus’ birth; in fact, some theologians have concluded he was probably born in spring, as suggested by references to shepherds and sheep in the Nativity story.

But by the fourth century A.D., Western Christian churches settled on celebrating Christmas on December 25, which allowed them to incorporate the holiday with Saturnalia and other popular pagan midwinter traditions.

Pagans and Christians co-existed (not always happily) during this period, and this likely represented an effort to convince the remaining pagan Romans to accept Christianity as Rome’s official religion.

Before the end of the fourth century, many of the traditions of Saturnalia—including giving gifts, singing, lighting candles, feasting and merrymaking—had become absorbed by the traditions of Christmas as many of us know them today.

John Matthews, The Winter Solstice: The Sacred Traditions of Christmas (Godsfield Press, 1998).
Saturnalia, Ancient History Encyclopedia.
Did the Romans invent Christmas? BBC News.