What is Saturnalia?
Saturnalia is known as the most popular and festive pagan holiday celebrated in ancient Rome. It honored the Roman god Saturn. Originally it was celebrated on December 17th. Later the festivities were extended to the 23rd. This holiday is a derivative from earlier agricultural celebrations centered around the winter solstice. In Roman times this was a celebration to remember the goodness and prosperity the Golden Age,which Saturn presided over, provided. It was a lively time, full of merriment. The atmosphere was not unlike what we experience during modern day Mardis Gras.
Who is Saturn?
Saturn was an agricultural god of plenty, wealth, liberation, renewal, and agriculture. After the Romans conquered Greece Saturn was synchronized with the titan Cronos and thus began to rule over time as well.
The planet Saturn and Saturday both get their name sakes from Saturn.
What is the Golden Age?
The Golden Age, the age of plenty and peace, came from ancient Greek mythology. It is one of the five ages of man. Being the first age of man, it is the age experienced closest to creation. Everything was peaceful. Stability and prosperity ruled the land. The Earth provided everything man needed. We did not need to work for abundance the Earth just provided. Atmospherically it is reminiscent of the Christian Garden of Eden.
Five age of man- golden, silver, bronze, heroic, iron
During Saturnalia all work and business came to a halt. This was a time of merriment, drinkining, music, feasting, gambling, and gift giving. It was a time to remember the peace, prosperity, and happiness of the Golden Age. All social norms were suspended. Slaves were invited to and participated in the festivities as well. Some households even practiced a role reversal, where the masters of the house served the slaves. Whether you have ever heard of Saturnalia or not, you most likely have traditional celebrations that originate in this festival. Most notably in the West, many Christmas traditions have roots in Saturnalia.
Historically the true birth date of Jesus Christ is unknown. Due to the reference of sheep at the manger, most historians place it in the spring or summer. However, in the 4th century AD, Pope Julius I moved the celebration of Christmas to December 25th. This was done, in part, to create a Christian alternative to Saturnalia. Synchronization of traditions was a tried and true tactic of the Romans to appease their conquered cultures. Another example of this tactic is All Saints Day being created as an alternative to Samhain. Due to this synchronization of Saturnalia and Christmas many Saturnalia traditions were rebranded as Christmas traditions. We still participate in many of these to this day.
Music was a large part of the Saturnalia festivities. I mean we all know good music is vital to a good party. More specifically, during Saturnalia it was a custom to go singing door to door as a way to spread the holiday cheer. This is certainly the ancestor of our modern day Christmas Caroling.
Ever wonder why we exchange gifts for Christmas? I always assumed it had something to do with a worldwide birthday celebration for Christ. I would never have associated it with an agricultural god from ancient Rome. However, on the last day of Saturnalia the Romans would exchange gifts with their friends and loved ones. It was a celebration known as Sigillaria. Typically these gifts were small terracotta figurines. Other gifts included small figurines made of wax. These gifts were given in the spirit of celebration and appreciation of what is good in your life.
As mentioned one of the cornerstones of Saturnalia was that all work stopped. Slaves also were given their freedom for the week, some households even going as far to to have a role reversal. The masters serve the servants sort of thing. This is believed to be the root of Boxing Day, celebrated the day after Christmas in the UK. Boxing day is traditionally when the wealthy give boxed up gifts to the poor. The servants are given the day off to exchange gifts and celebrate with their own families.
Ancient Greeks and Romans both wore wreaths as crowns during their celebrations. Some believed wearing these would stave off drunkeness. Saturnalia wreaths were commonly made from fir, ivy, and holly. These evergreen plants were chosen because they symbolize life returning after the long winter. Fir symbolizes fertility, abundance, and life, even during the darkest winter nights. Fir was not only used to make wreaths. Branches were also used to decorate the house. Sounds a lot like the garlands and wreaths we commonly use during the holiday season. Holly and ivy were also used as traditional Saturnalia decor. Holly was a sacred plant to Saturn. Ivy is a symbol of marriage and friendship. Saturnalia was a time to celebrate life with those closest to you. For this reason ivy was used liberally in Saturnalia decorations. Kissing under the mistletoe was originated by the Greeks, but was a tradition also adopted by the Romans. Mistletoe is a symbol of peace. Roman treaties were often signed under mistletoe. As an evergreen it was also adopted into Saturnalia decorations.
Festival of lights
Saturnalia was a festival of light. The winter solstice is the longest night of the year. One of the most common gifts to exchange during Saturnalia were candles. This light symbolized light beginning to return to Earth after the dark winter. In our modern times this tradition still lives in the use of Advent candles. We can also see this tradition in the use of Christmas lights to decorate during the holidays. Originally these decorations were a symbol of hope; light is returning to us soon, and the darkest night will soon be over. That seems more in line with the holiday spirit than Christmas lights being used as just a friendly competition with the neighbors.
The Romans had a vast empire to rule and many peoples from many cultures to keep appeased. Synchronization was a powerful tool they used to achieve this goal. The pagan holiday Saturnalia is just one pagan holiday that was rebranded as a Christian celebration. Many of our modern Christmas traditions have roots in old Pagan celebrations. Gift giving, advent candles, Christmas decorations, merriment, and even when we celebrate Christmas all originate in Saturnalia. Did you know how many of our beloved Christmas traditions originated with the agricultural god Saturn? It seems the peak of winter is a time our DNA calls us to reflect on what’s important to us. Life, love, family and friends top the list for all of us. After being cooped up it makes complete sense that people need a release and to create some joy for themselves and their loved ones. No wonder we, in 2020, are starting to celebrate the holidays early. We’re all coming out of a very long, dark night after all.