Saturnalia was an ancient Roman festival to honor Saturn (the equivalent of the Greek god Cronus), one of the early agricultural gods who predated the traditional Roman pantheon. The festival was originally celebrated on December 17th and later expanded an additional week to December 23rd. Although the festival was celebrated across the Roman Empire, in Rome the festival began with a sacrifice at the Temple of Saturn in the Roman Forum and a public banquet which was attended by Saturn’s statue. Perhaps one of the best-known elements of the Saturnalia festival was the exchange of places between the slaves and the masters.
The masters put aside their togas, donned skimpy outfits with caps often traditionally worn by Greeks that would be out-of-place at any other time, and served the slaves during the banquet. The public celebration was followed by private observances in the home including the sacrifice of a pig. Later celebrations continued outside with shouts of “io Saturnalia” filling the streets. (Io, pronounced yo, was an expression of elation.) Gambling which was frowned upon at any other time was permitted during Saturnalia. After seven days of celebration, the celebration ended with the exchange of gifts among family, friends, and with the slaves.
Saturnalia was also a festival of light that led up to the winter solstice. The abundance of lit candles symbolized the search for knowledge and truth and the approach of the new year which was celebrated on December 25th as Sol Invictus, the Birthday of the Unconquerable Sun. Some elements of the celebration carried over into the Christmas celebrations during the later Roman Empire.
Tomorrow, My Family’s New Year’s Must Have Rita Bay