Originally written on December 17, 2020 – Updated 2022
Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanza, whatever your holiday, most of the December holiday traditions that we celebrate today can be traced back to the Ancient Roman holiday of Saturnalia (with a healthy dose of inspiration from the Vikings). From tree decorations, wreaths, ornaments, boughs of holly, carolling, gift-giving, and even gingerbread men, most of what we identify as Christmas has roots going back thousands of years.
When it comes to celebrations, parties, and downright debauchery, probably no one beats the folks of ancient Rome. And, in this period, around the time of the winter solstice each year, they celebrated the so-called festival of Saturnalia.
Described by the Latin poet Catullus as ‘The Best of Days’, as the name not by chance suggests, this was a celebration in honor of Saturn, the agricultural god. This week-long holiday typically began around this day, December 17, so that it would end right around the day of the solstice.
At the temple of Saturn on Capitoline Hill fertility rituals were performed, including sacrifices and, in addition to the large public celebrations, lot of private citizens held ceremonies honoring the god in their homes. One of the highlights of Saturnalia was the switching of traditional roles, particularly between masters and their slaves. Everyone got to wear the red pileus, or freedman’s hat, and slaves were free to be as impertinent as they wished to their masters. However, despite the appearance of a reversal of social order, there were, of course, some fairly strict boundaries. For istance, a master might serve his slaves dinner, but the slaves were the ones who prepared it and, apparently, this kept Roman society in order, but still allowed everyone to enjoy.
Peasants were in command of the city while business and schools were closed so that everyone could join in the fun. Food and drink were plentiful, elaborate feasts and banquets were held, and it wasn’t unusual to exchange small gifts at these parties. A typical Saturnalia gift might be something like a writing tablet or tool, cups and spoons, clothing items, or food, but also a “cerei”, a tapered wax candle used in many temples and shrines.
Citizens decked their halls with boughs of greenery, and even hung small tin ornaments on bushes and trees. Bands of naked revelers often roamed the streets, singing and carousing, as a sort of ancestor to today’s Christmas caroling tradition.
However, not everyone agreed with these celebrations. Pliny the Younger, for istance, said:
“When I retire to this garden summer-house, I fancy myself a hundred miles away from my villa, and take especial pleasure in it at the feast of the Saturnalia, when, by the license of that festive season, every other part of my house resounds with my servants’ mirth: thus I neither interrupt their amusement nor they my studies.”
In other words, he didn’t want to be pestered by merrymaking, and was perfectly happy to indulge himself in the solitude of his country home, away from the debauchery of the city.
In any case, Saturnalia was considered a holy day: after all, it was held in honor of a major god, and so also a number of religious rituals took place during the festivities.
According to early legends, Saturn himself was sacrificed, so in some areas, mock sacrifices of the god took place. In some temples for istance an ivory statue of Saturn was portrayed with linen or woolen bonds around the feet and ankles and, during Saturnalia, these bonds were loosened to represent the god’s liberation. This ritual was typically followed, of course, by a rich public banquet.
In wealthier Roman households, the Saturnalicius princeps, or more simply “leader of Saturnalia” was selected from among the slaves. Similar to the custom of the Lord of Misrule in Britain, who appears around the Yule season, he was responsible for organizing merrymaking and mischief during the celebrations. He was seen as “the ruler of chaos”, in direct contrast to the normal orderly manner of a regular Roman life. Moreover, he was in charge of making offerings to the Penates, Roman household gods associated with domestic life.
He played the role of Saturn, the ancient god who reigned during an era of peace and prosperity when the gods walked alongside men. The title of Princeps of fools was once held by a young man named Lucius Domizio Enobardo, better known in history as Nero, who took advantage of this event to mock his half-brother Britannico, making him sing silly songs in front of everyone. Britannico, however, didn’t get fooled and, with extreme seriousness, sang of being Claudius’s rightful son, and of how the emperor’s seditious second wife managed to advantage her son Nero into succession. These words increased Nero’s hatred towards him, so much so that he tried to poison his stepbrother, to make sure he had no rivals at the imperial seat.
The traditional greeting at a Saturnalia celebration is, “Io, Saturnalia!”, pronounced as “Yo.”
Much like “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays”, the Romans had their own greeting for the season. The first word was pronounced either “eye-oh” or “yo”, with both being deemed technically correct (just like potato or potatoe…). It could mean just about anything, and was often shouted by revellers in the midst of committing acts of naughtiness.
So, next time someone wishes you a happy holiday, feel free to respond with “Io, Saturnalia!”
After all, if you lived in Roman times, Saturn was the focus of this season…
Images from Web – Google Research