“Io Saturnalia!”

by Rebecca Stone

The celebration of Saturnalia
Before the birth of Christ, there were many festive celebrations around the time of the winter solstice that had been occurring for hundreds of years. Saturnalia was the oldest, and most popular festival of the ancient Roman calendar. The pagan celebration for the god, Saturn, was held on the 17th December in the Julian calendar. By the late Republic (133-31 BC) the festival had lengthened to finish on the 23rd December. Saturnalia was a celebration of gift-giving, gambling, feasting, and role-reversion. The social norms regarding hierarchy and classes were overturned and everyone celebrating in this festival wore a simple and plain tunic, so that class was not asserted. Saturn, to whom public sacrifices would have been made during this festival, was the Roman god associated with agriculture, wealth, and liberation.

During the festival, shops would close their doors as well as courts of law and schools, and the people of Rome would gather in front of a large stone statue of Saturn. Priests would perform a sacrifice outside the temple in the main forum, and remove wooden cloths from the statue’s feet, symbolising the loosening of liberation. This marked the official beginning to Saturnalia. Near the stone statue of Saturn, a wooden statue of the God would be brought out by the senators of Rome, and carried to a large outdoor banquet area. The senators positioned the god on a large recliner. With the god positioned to look over the feast, the banquet would begin, and the wine started flowing. All the citizens of the city could enjoy the feast, and the class system was upended for the day. There were gladiatorial games held during the day. To continue the theme of social disarray, all classes could fight, and there were often games of women fighting, and even dwarfs. Not all romans found these games very tasteful. There were some who detested these games, and tried, if they could, to not participate, for example, the famous orator, lawyer and philosopher, Cicero.

Come nightfall, streets would be lined with candles and torches, and houses would be decorated with wreaths and other greenery. Citizens were accustomed to staying out all night, drinking at public houses and being entertained at parties. At these parties, to celebrate Saturn and his theme of liberty, a person, normally a child or slave would be named the “Satunalicius Princeps”, or ‘leader of Saturnalia”. All the other guests at the party would have to do as he says. This was all done in merriment, so the orders were usually to sing songs or dance. However, as the leader was usually a lower member of the household, this figure was occasionally responsible for making mischief during the celebration, such as insulting guests or chasing women and girls.

Going from door to door to present presents, and passing on the streets, friends were accustomed to shout “Io Saturnalia” at each other, as an early form of “merry Christmas”. A very popular present to give to a friend or family member was a signillaria. This was a small terracotta figurine, often personalised. It was expected, at the time, to give a gift just as expensive or elaborate as the one received from the friend. No gift should be worse, or less luxurious than the previous year, so often the whole of December was dedicated to finding the right gift.

We have many accounts from poets and writers of the time about Saturnalia, for example, this epigram from Martial: “In sending you neither silver nor gold, Eloquent Stella, I have acted for your interests. Whoever makes great gifts, wishes great gifts to be made to him in return. By my gift of earthenware vases, you will be released from such an obligation.” So you now have an excuse for giving your grandma a cheap vase for Christmas.

  Io saturnalia et felix annus novus!