Info About Saturnalia From “Classical Living”

The following is selections about Saturnalia from the December chapter of Classical Living: Reconnecting with the Rituals of Ancient Rome: Myths, Gods, Goddesses, Celebrations, and Rites for Every Month of the Year by Frances Bernstein, Ph.D. Saturnalia, of course, is the origins of many of the traditions that are continued today in the Christmas season.

“December is a dark and cold month; its short period of daylight is overshadowed by the many hours of relentless dark. December is the month of the winter solstice and of transition, for the solstice marks a turning point in the course of the sun. In December, the sun reverses its course and the solar journey starts afresh towards longer hours of sunlight decreasing hours of night. December is a pivotal month, marking the distinction between two very different solar paths. Different worlds and different paths is a theme of the December rituals to Saturn. (pg 222)

December 17 – 23 XIV – VIII Kalends January



The Saturnalia festivities opened at the temple of Saturn with a sacrifice to the god, followed by a lavish banquet. At the sacrifice and offering, the Romans wore their best clothes (togas required), yet changed for the banquet into more casual, comfortable clothes and soft woolen caps. The banquet ended with a communal shout of “Io Saturnalia!” Then came a week or more of parties, dinners, and social events. Shops were closed, official business stopped, and everyone celebrated the Saturnalia. Public drinking, gambling, and partying were condoned. The Roman author Pliny complained of the noise and shut himself up in a soundproof room while the rest of the household celebrated.

Yet for one ancient author and for most Romans, “It was the best of days”.

This was a special time in the home role were reversed and masters waited on slaves. A “king of Saturnalia” was chosen in household, and gifts exchanged, including the traditional ceramic doll figures for children and wax candles for friends. Extra food and wine were set out for slave and master each night. The Saturnalia itself was s celebrated into the 5th century CE. (pg 223)


The most famous of Roman holidays, the Saturnalia shares a certain reputation for rowdiness and debauchery. It did have a serious component, not unlike out holiday season in December. We can understand the festive December season, when we put aside out normal daily routine of work and school is suspended. After all, this is the time of year to shop and exchange presents, to buy new holiday outfits, to plan special feasts and gatherings with friends and family to drink, eat, and make merry. Underneath all the revelry, however, are the very solemn and joyous religious events of Christmas and Hanukkah. The ancient Romans did exactly the same thing in mid-December over two thousand years ago when they celebrated the Saturnalia.

The temple of Saturn was located at the base of the Capitol and dedicated on December 17. Standing inside was a statue of the god that was filled with oil and also bound with with woolen binds. During his December ritual these were undone, and Saturn was freed. One ancient author suggests that this was similar to the seed or the human embryo, bound in the mother’s womb and bursting free in the tenth month. Thus, December, would be the month the babe was born. Recall that the most ancient calendars began in March, hence December was, as the name states, the tenth month originally. (pg 224)


A closer look at the Saturnalia suggests a nature-driven theme, when things are turned upside down and worlds are reversed for just a few days; for this when the sun reverses its course and, having passed the shortest day, now begins to move toward the longest. In December it is appropriate to ritually switch thing around a little bit. the Saturnalia represents in one respect an “inversion ritual”. For a limited time and within the context of a controlled religious rite, reality is altered and roles are reversed/ The slave sat at the table and was waited on by the master, gambling was permitted in public when it was forbidden throughout the year, and informal clothes were worn for dinner instead of the formal toga. The hat of freedom, a felt cap called a pilleus worn by freed slaves, was worn by all people; a “Lord of Misrule” was chosen within each household to rule over the festivities; and slave would wear their master’s clothes.

This ritualized role reversal served a deeper purpose of breaking p, for just a few days, the established hierarchy and exposing the artificiality of customary fixed roles within a household — roles defined by societal expectation. The Saturnalia ritual, performed with mockery and jest, in fct provided a chance for greater compassion and empathy between master and slave. The ritual itself could lead to a loosening of expectations and perhaps an increased tolerance of those living under the same-roofed atrium. (pg 226) ……

We look forward to this time of joy and anticipate a festive atmosphere when our lives change for just a little bit. Spiritually, we also seek a reconnection with the divine spirit. Gift giving then as now was a popular expression of friendship, love, and harmony. Along with the traditional gifts of candles and dolls, a variety of objects were purchased and exchanged between friends and family. In large family, presents were drawn blindfolded for gift exchange, much like today’s “Secret Santa”. You can imagine the crowded streets in ancient Rome, full of men, women, and children rushing from shop to shop, searching for the perfect gift at the jewelers, the perfumers store, the leather shop, or the clothing store. People pushed and crowded into the wine dealers, the grocers, the pastry shops to buy the extra amphora of Falernaian wine and the necessary ingredients for those special Saturnalia recipes. (pg 227)


December’s rituals bring promise. For Christians it is the promise of the salvation a better life with the birth of the Christ Child. For the pagan Romans, it was the promise of the Golden Age and the Rule of Saturn. It is the promise of a spiritual life, a life blessed and in accord with the deities.

Saturn harkens back to the Golden Age, an age of piety. It is for this age we must now hope. At the millennium, we begin the New Order of the Ages. For spiritual guidance, we can learn from the gods and goddess the ancient practices. As Saturn asks, “Who would bring incense to my smoking altars?”

The first age was golden when authority was not needed. Men and women revered justice and virtue. They kept faith. (Ovid Metamorphoses 1.90-92)”

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