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The Roman Festival of the Saturnalia
Many of the traditional customs celebrated at Christmas owe their origin to the ancient Roman festival of the Saturnalia, held at midwinter.
A high point in the Roman festive calendar, the Saturnalia celebrations lasted for several days (the number changed through the Roman era) and were a time for parties, playing games, gift-giving and the temporary setting aside of the inequalities between master and slave that were such a feature of everyday Roman life.
The Saturnalia began on December the 17th and in the early Roman Republic the celebrations were supposed to only last for a single day. By the end of the Republic, however, the festival had lengthened to two or three days and by the end of the first century CE the Saturnalia lasted officially from the 17th to the 23rd of December.
Saturn: A Golden Age God in Exile
The Saturnalia was named after the God Saturnus, an ancient Roman deity about whose origins little is known. He seems to have been an agricultural deity and the fact that the treasury was situated in his temple suggests a connection with increase and abundance. His consort was the Goddess Ops whose name signified wealth.
Later, Saturnus was understood as the Roman equivalent of the Greek God Kronos, who had ruled the world in the early days before being overthrown by his son Zeus who ushered in the rule of the Olympian deities. (The Greeks held an equivalent winter festival called the Kronia)
Though in Greek mythology Kronos is portrayed as a rather savage figure, who was in the habit of devouring his own children until overthrown by Zeus, he has another more positive aspect; the era of his reign was also perceived as a Golden Age for humankind.
The Golden Age was seen as a time before human life became harsh and driven by greed, lust and violence. Humanity lived in a peaceful state of childlike bliss. They did not farm but lived off the fruits of the Earth. There was no need for war, or boundary stones marking off one person's land from another's, no law-courts, no kings, masters or slaves and no hard work for anyone.
Each year, for the few days of the Saturnalia, Roman society, notable for its ruthless pursuit of wealth and domination, recreated the Golden Age of Saturn.
The Official State Celebration of the Saturnalia
As well as all the celebrations that went on in people's homes, the Saturnalia was also formally celebrated as part of the Roman state religion. The Temple of Saturn, one of the most ancient in Rome, situated in the Roman Forum was also the city treasury. On the 17th of December the Temple was opened and the God, whose image was bound in bands of wool throughout the year was released.
A public banquet followed with joyful cries of Io Saturnalia! from the people.
Saturnalia Celebrations at Home
Throughout the Saturnalia, all schools were closed and most business was suspended. Children could play at home, while Roman men could lay aside the heavy, encumbering toga that respectable male citizens wore in the city and put on the more comfortable synthesis, or dining tunic.
Playing dice and other forms of gambling, normally discouraged, could be indulged in by all the family, though the stakes were supposed to be nuts rather than hard cash.
A Princeps Saturnalia (King of the Saturnalia) was appointed from among the whole household, slave and free, according to a throw of the dice and he led the revels and made decrees which the rest of the household had to obey, however outrageous. The Lord of Misrule appointed as part of Christmas celebrations in the Middle Ages is a closely related custom.
Slaves and the Saturnalia
Slavery was an accepted fact of life in ancient Rome and slaves worked in all kinds of occupations from practising medicine and teaching, to labouring in the mines in horrendous conditions or working in a chain gang on a farm. While small households and businesses might employ only one or two slaves, the great households of the very rich would be staffed by many hundreds of slaves, each with their own specialised job to do.
For most of the year, slaves were generally expected to know their place and put their own needs and desires second to those of their masters. During the Saturnalia this was reversed and slaves were supposed to take over the household, enjoying their feast before the table was laid for the master's family and even sometimes being waited on by their masters at table. Instead of working, slaves could spend their time playing dice and other games, drinking, feasting and enjoying themselves.
During the celebrations, slaves and free people alike wore the pileus or freedman's cap, symbolising the temporary levelling of status. (An ancestor of Christmas paper crowns?)
The Roman writer Pliny tells us in his letters (Letters 2.17.23-4) that he found all this noisy jollity a bit much and would retreat to a quiet separate room throughout the Saturnalia where he could study in peace without spoiling everyone's fun.
Dropping their usual enforced deference, slaves were supposed to be free to speak their minds to their masters throughout the festival. (It seems very likely that there were unspoken rules about how far you could go.)
At other times of the year, a slave who spoke out of turn might be rebuked with the comment, “this isn't the Saturnalia, you know!” (E.g. Satyricon 58) As well as being an opportunity for everyone to let off steam and relax for a few days (except Pliny) it also served as a reminder that such idleness and liberty were outside the norm and only acceptable during the crazy days of the Saturnalia.
Gift Giving and the Sigillaria
The Sigillaria was held on the last day of the Saturnalia. On this day gifts were given, traditionally of clay dolls and candles, sigillaria which were sold in a special market set up each year under the colonnades at Rome. Other presents were given too; libelli, wax writing tablets in a smart case were considered a good present or more extravagant presents could be eagerly anticipated. It was also a time for the rich to give bounty to their slaves and other dependants.
Religions of Rome Volume 2, A Sourcebook, Mary Beard, John North & Simon Price,Cambridge University Press, 1998 pg. 124-126 - a useful selection of primary sources for the Saturnalia