Saturnalia was an ancient Roman festival in honour of the god Saturn. It was originally held on 17 December but was later extended with festivities to 23 December. Saturnalia was celebrated with a sacrifice at the Temple of Saturn, and a public banquet. This was followed by private gift giving and continual partying. Many believe Saturnalia was a major influence on customs associated with later celebrations in western Europe, especially Christmas. Let’s look at the origins of this pagan holiday and similarities with today’s festivities.
Ancient Roman historian Justinus states Saturn was an historical king of the pre-Roman Italy: “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.” Saturn was viewed as an agricultural deity who reigned over the world in the Golden Age. The term Golden Age is adopted from Greek mythology and is the first of five Ages, Gold being the first and the one during which the Golden Race of lived. After the end of the first age was the Silver, then Bronze, followed by the Heroic age. The fifth contempary age of the time was Iron. The Golden Age of Saturn’s rule was a period when pre-Romans enjoyed the fruits of the earth without labour in an age of innocence. The revelries of Saturnalia reflected the conditions of this lost mythical age.
During Saturnalia, Roman society was turned on its head. As well a sacrifice, feasting and partying, masters provided table service for their slaves and freedmen. Gambling was permitted for all and it was a time of liberty. A “Ruler of the Saturnalia” was elected by lots, who was a master of ceremonies and comparable to the “Lord of Misrule” at the Feast of Fools, which originated in Northern France. Gifts exchanged were usually ancient joke shop type items know as gag gifts or small clay or wax figurines known as sigillaria. Toys were given to children. Saturnalia was held sixteen days before the Kalends of January, which marked the birth of the unconquerable Sun.
Fifth century Roman writer, Macrobius Ambrosius Theodosius is our major source of information about Saturnalia. He described Saturnalia as a festival of light leading to the winter solstice. Like the Christian Advent, candles were lit each day to symbolise the quest for knowledge and truth. The renewal of light and the coming new year was celebrated in the later Roman Empire as the Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, the “Birthday of the Unconquerable Sun” on 23
December. The Philocalian calendar of AD 354 actually dates the festival of “Natalis Invicti” on 25 December. There is limited evidence that Natalis Invicti was celebrated before the mid-4th century. Despite similarities between Christmas and Saturnalia it is only since the 12th century, that the near-solstice date of 25 December for Christmas was selected because it was the date of the festival of Dies Natalis Solis Invicti. However, Hippolytus of Rome, between 202 and 211, said in his commentary on the Book of Daniel that the birth of Jesus took place on December 25, which was prior to Natalis Invicti.