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Ancient Winter Celebrations, Part 1: Roman Saturnalia


December 11, 2019

December brings about myriad holidays and celebrations that keep out the bitter cold and bring warmth to everyone’s lives. Whether it’s Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Festivus, or something else, nearly everyone is in the holiday spirit! In this series of posts, we’ll be looking at winter holidays celebrated by ancient civilizations, some of which are still recognized today.

One such holiday was Saturnalia, an ancient Roman winter holiday that was held on December 17 (in later centuries, it was celebrated from December 17–23) in honor of the god Saturn. The holiday would begin with the sacrifice of a bull and other animals at the Temple of Saturn, which was located in the Forum in Rome. Once the sacrifice was finished, the meat would be cooked for the whole community to enjoy together in a massive citywide feast. Business was not permitted to take place during Saturnalia, and most of the city was closed in order to honor the festivities.

“io, Saturnalia,” was the Roman equivalent of “Happy Holidays” during this time of year, and gifts were exchanged between friends and family. Partying was for everyone, and role reversal was the name of the game. In fact, the Romans, who were a slave-owning culture, would allow their slaves to celebrate and feast alongside freemen during Saturnalia, and their masters would often serve them instead.

A “King of Saturnalia” was elected in later celebrations of the holiday, and he presided over the festivities, ensuring that no one was kept from the merrymaking. This individual would give ludicrous orders to people all over the city, such as, “throw him into cold water” or “sing naked!”—all in the name of spreading fun. Romans everywhere would set aside their stereotypical togas for the garish Greek synthesis, a loose-fitting gown that was normally restricted to the private dinner party and not acceptable as daywear. It was the “ugly Christmas sweater” of the Romans, if you will!

Traditional Saturnalia gifts often came in the form of toys for young children, such as dice and wax dolls, and adults would exchange “gag gifts” or more serious presents like clothing or animals. The most traditional gifts were wax figures called sigillaria. Wax was a special medium during this time of year; candles were prominent symbolic objects during Saturnalia, representing the return of light after the Winter Solstice (the longest night of the year) and honoring Saturn as the god of light.

Today, there are not many who recognize and celebrate Saturnalia, but as it falls in line with many other midwinter festivities, some neo-pagan and wiccan groups still celebrate with candles and feasting during this time. While Saturnalia may no longer be practiced explicitly, it has had a profound effect on midwinter festivities tied to western religion. The Romans were great copycats, often taking bits and pieces of other cultures and refashioning them in their own Roman way (e.g., Greek gods, culture, holidays, etc.). Even after the Roman Empire adopted Christianity, they still adjusted their former pagan celebrations to fit the “new” Christmas festivities. After many, many centuries of mixing and evolving, this conglomeration of old and new customs became the Christmas we know today!

Interested in learning more about ancient winter holidays? Check out these resources:

Happy Saturnalia!

Jordan N.
Blue Springs North Branch


Your blog was exceptionally well written. I enjoyed reading it very much--there were many "ah-hah, I get it" moments. My daughter's birthday is on Dec 17th so I was even more intrigued. Thank you for sharing.

From Bobbi (not verified)
Fri, 12/13/2019 - 03:15pm

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