Was Saturnalia the Roman Christmas?

The ancient roman festival of Saturnalia, has a lot in common with our own Christmas. How did the Romans celebrated it?

Was Saturnalia the Roman Christmas?
The Romans of the decadence. Thomas Couture, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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Saturnalia, an ancient Roman festival honoring Saturn, the god of agriculture, sowing, and time, has left a lasting legacy on modern celebrations, particularly Christmas.

The Origins of Saturnalia

Saturnalia began as a single day of celebration on December 17th but expanded to a week-long festivity by the late Republic era. This festival was deeply intertwined with the winter sowing season and the winter solstice, marking a period of rest and revelry as the agricultural year came to a close. The Romans believed that Saturnalia heralded a temporary return to a lost age of equality and abundance, free from the social hierarchies that structured Roman society.

Saturnalia was considered by the Romans to be their version of the earlier Greek festival Kronia, celebrated in the late midsummer during the Attic month of Hekatombaion. For some Romans, it held significant theological meaning, viewed as a return to the mythical Golden Age under Saturn's rule. The Neoplatonist philosopher Porphyry saw the festival's tradition of granting freedom as representing the liberation of souls into eternity.

It's believed that Saturnalia influenced various traditions of later midwinter celebrations in Western Europe, including those associated with Christmas, the Feast of the Holy Innocents, and Epiphany. Notably, the practice of choosing a "Lord of Misrule" during the Christmas season in historical Western Europe may have originated from the festivities of Saturnalia.

The ancient Roman historian Justinus credits Saturn with being a historical king of the pre-Roman inhabitants of Italy:

"The first inhabitants of Italy were the Aborigines, whose king, Saturnus, is said to have been a man of such extraordinary justice, that no one was a slave in his reign, or had any private property, but all things were common to all, and undivided, as one estate for the use of every one; in memory of which way of life, it has been ordered that at the Saturnalia slaves should everywhere sit down with their masters at the entertainments, the rank of all being made equal."

 — Justinus, Epitome of Pompeius Trogus 43.3[6]

Saturnalia by Antoine Callet. Credit: Wikimedia Commons, CC0 1.0

Customs and Celebrations

The customs of Saturnalia were characterized by a reversal of social norms and an atmosphere of general merriment. People were decorating their homes with wreaths and greenery. Slaves were granted temporary freedoms, enjoying privileges such as dining at the head of the table and speaking freely. Work and business ceased, schools closed, and the normal order of society was suspended in favor of feasting, gambling, singing, and dancing.

Rigid Roman dress regulations were temporarily disregarded as well. Rather than wearing the formal and cumbersome toga, Romans across all social strata would don the synthesis, a relaxed and brightly colored garment typically worn at private dinner gatherings. Additionally, to symbolize the festival's spirit of freedom and liberation, everyone would adorn themselves with the freedman’s cap, a pointed felt hat traditionally given to slaves upon their emancipation.

When the Roman poet Statius attended Emperor Domitian’s Saturnalia feast in the late first century AD, he had a great time:

“Who can sing of the spectacle, the unrestrained mirth, the banqueting, the unbought feast, the lavish streams of wine? Ah! now I faint, and drunken with thy liquor drag myself at last to sleep.”

During the festive period of Saturnalia, when joy and revelry were paramount, typical social conventions were temporarily set aside or reversed. Gambling, which was generally prohibited, became permissible in public spaces. Historical records suggest that gambling was intended to be for nuts rather than money, in an effort to mimic the idyllic era of Saturn's reign.

Games of chance utilized knucklebones, known as tali in Latin or astragaloi in Greek. Initially crafted from the ankle bones of sheep or goats, these items were both readily available and inexpensive. Over time, knucklebones were produced from a variety of materials, ranging from basic ones like wood, stone, and terracotta to more luxurious substances such as translucent glass, bronze, gold, ivory, and precious stones. These upscale versions of knucklebones, illustrated here, might not match as sets, yet their widespread discovery throughout the Roman Empire and frequent depiction in art and sculpture indicate the game's broad appeal.

Convivial gatherings centered around drinking played a pivotal role in Saturnalia celebrations. As the ancient satirist Lucian said: “to drink the most delightful drinks and to be acclaimed a better singer in your cups than the next man”.

In antiquity, it was customary to dilute wine with water, occasionally adding honey or spices, which was then served from a large bowl into individual cups for drinking. Reflecting the festival's inclusive ethos, this tradition was embraced by all, irrespective of social standing. Notably, even Cato the Elder, renowned for his austerity, generously provided his farm workers with additional wine (approximately 20 pints per person!) to mark the occasion.

Beaker with inscription. Credits: Getty Museum Collection. Public domain

The glass from the Eastern Mediterranean, shown above, probably contained numerous servings of wine and bears an appropriately celebratory message: “Rejoice and be merry.” Along with the abundant wine, festive meals typically featured pork, a common gift during Saturnalia due to the tradition of gifting fattened pigs, in addition to winter vegetables, dried fruits and dates, and sweet pastries.

Gift-giving was a central aspect of Saturnalia.

During the final day of Saturnalia, referred to as Sigillaria, it was customary for many Romans to exchange small terracotta statues, called signillaria, with their friends and family. These figurines possibly harkened back to ancient rituals that included human sacrifices.

Macrobius, in "Saturnalia" (Macrobius Ambrosius Theodosius, usually referred to as Macrobius (fl. c. AD 400), was a Roman provincial who lived during the early fifth century, during late antiquity, the period of time corresponding to the Later Roman Empire,) mentions that candles and small statues referred to as sigilla were the most popular gifts. Beyond these standards, however, the range of gifts given was vast. Martial (Marcus Valerius Martialis, a Roman poet, best known for his twelve books of Epigrams, published in Rome between AD 86 and 103, during the reigns of the emperors Domitian, Nerva and Trajan) provides a humorous list in one of his epigrams:

"You have sent me as a present for the Saturnalia, Umber, everything which you have received during the past five days; twelve note-books of three tablets each, seven tooth-picks; together with which came a sponge, a table-cloth, a wine-cup, a half-bushel of beans, a basket of Picenian olives, and a black jar of Laletanian wine. There came also some small Syrian figs, some candied plums, and a heavy pot of figs from Libya."

The thirteenth and fourteenth volumes of Martial's epigrams are primarily composed of "tags" for Saturnalia presents. Should these represent the actual gifts exchanged, it suggests friends could gift each other items such as food, wine, writing tablets, dice, games, toothpicks, combs, clothing, weapons, lamps, dumbbells, toys, tooth powder, live birds, gold cups, books, dogs, slaves, or even pastry sculptures of Priapus (a fertility god with an enormous phallus).

Wax candles and oil lamps were favored gifts during Saturnalia, serving as symbols of the sun's return following the winter solstice. In Roman dwellings, these candles were often set on family altars dedicated to Saturn as votive offerings, particularly towards the festival's end. Their use was not only symbolic but also functional, providing essential lighting for the nocturnal festivities.

The terracotta lamp, designed with six separate wicks, can emit light as if it were six individual lamps. The crescent-shaped handle likely symbolizes Luna, the goddess of the moon, while the semi-circular arrangement of the flames may symbolize the sun, representing Sol, the sun god.

Martial, with humor describes over 200 Saturnalia gifts, and a “lamp with many wicks” like the one mentioned above and a “bedroom lamp”:

“I am a lamp, confidante of your sweet bed. You may do whatever you will, I shall be silent.”

Saturnalia continued to be observed deep into the late ancient period. As Christianity gained prominence, this pagan festival was excluded from official calendars yet persisted as a widely celebrated secular event. The customs of Saturnalia, embodying the anticipation of the harvest and optimism for the future amid the bleak winter months, were absorbed into the festivities of Christmas and the New Year.


For those that want to learn more about Saturnalia, we hope you’ll enjoy this video:

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