The Roman celebration of Saturnalia was held for several days in mid-December to celebrate the passing of seasons, with its roots in the worship of the agricultural god Saturn. Saturn was syncretised with the Greek Kronos as the Romans came to control Greece, becoming increasingly invested in their gods. Saturn is often depicted as an older bearded man holding a scythe, an acknowledgement of his agrarian roots. The temple of Saturn in Rome stood prominently in the forum and is evidenced to this day by eight impressive columns and a partial podium.
From the late Republican period (the last 1oo years or so BCE) the midwinter celebration officially grew from three days to five in the Principate (December 17th to December 23rd). These were just official trends as it’s generally believed that unofficially it was a week, a bit like now depending on your employment. For the Romans work, studies and legal actions came to a halt and people were ready to party!
In Lucian’s Saturnalia, he speaks with the voice of Saturn in dialogue with a priest, observing how the revelries in his name should take place among the Romans: gaming, dancing, song and drinking were all part of the celebration of Saturnalia; it also involved things familiar to us today like decorating homes with greenery and wearing bright and colourful clothing (synthesis), like ugly sweater parties! Lucian’s Saturn is a very reasonable god who lays out three “laws” for gifting, celebrating and banqueting, emphasising fairness in all measures and not being compelled to act or gift beyond your means.
The King of Saturnalia
A king of Saturnalia acted as the ‘Lord of Misrule’ (like Carnivale) in these celebrations. Elected as the mock king, the Saturnalicius princeps, this agent of acceptable chaos in the household would walk the line between being a cheeky chap and straight up humorously (presumably) insulting guests and members of the household. Bear in mind that Roman households could be somewhat larger than ours – the nuclear family at the centre could include grandparents, cousins, adopted family members, children from other marriages, guests and the enslaved household labourers. Many of the societal norms were relaxed and played with in the household, where during this period the enslaved could eat at the head of the table with those who owned them taking a lower status position. Women too could mingle with men (in some circumstances) a little more freely and could hang together and gamble.
Gifts for Saturnalia
Gift-giving was an important part of Saturnalia. Gifts of high value were not necessarily what one would expect, generally the humour of lower cost gifts was appreciated- like trolling a friend with a joke gift. Catullus wrote of receiving epically bad poetry for a gift and it is fun to imagine the kind of hilarious insults he possibly wrote for friends for their gifts, like getting ‘read’ by Oscar Wild but smuttier. Saturnalia gifts could include: sausages, dried fruit, wine, piglets, wax candles (cerei), dolls, toys, books, statues, tools, exotic pets and more!
The last day of Saturnalia
As all good things must come to an end, so too did the annual revels of the Romans. On the last day of Saturnalia one would give sigillaria – terracotta or wax figurines, shaped in the likeness of familiar deities, mythical figures or easily caricatured types (grotesques). The day itself was called ‘Sigillaria‘; the gift type and gift-giving influenced the day’s name. Much like Boxing Day which one theory suggests may have started (according to the OED) as the first weekday after Christmas when postmen, delivery workers and servants of various types would receive a Christmas box, in which was some type of gift or tip. Possibly due in part to the ways gods were part of the everyday lives of Romans, and worshipped in the home in small devotional figures – the Lares – as guardians of the home, it is not surprising that a popular gift would include their likenesses in inexpensive small gifts, conferring further good luck and protection. For the wealthy, these gifts could be made from costly materials like gold or silver. Given their popularity, someone who crafted and sold this merchandise was called a sigillarius. Vendors were quite busy at this time of year, setting up stalls like the Christmas markets we are familiar with today.
The Romans had many festivals throughout the year, and a few days after the wild revels of Saturnalia, they celebrated the sober and solemn Compitalia, another festival in which metaphoric beginnings and endings are associated with the end of the year. Named after compita (crossroads), the recently revelrous enslaved peoples would offer sacrifices on behalf of the households within the neighbourhoods they lived to the Lares of the crossroads. Perhaps it is fitting to have a week of revels which brought families and friends together be followed up with a more sober festival which celebrated the bonds of community. Saying goodbye to the year is always fraught with bittersweet reflections with this year being notable in that regard, as surely in many world-changing years before the communities celebrating these rites would join together to celebrate and pray for better times ahead.
Stay safe and thank you for reading!