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Yoga Korunta

Life & Politics

Location: United States

One learns, as nothing endures but change.

26 December 2006

Tuesday's Word: Saturnalia

Saturnalia is the feast at which the Romans commemorated the dedication of the temple of the god Saturn, which took place on 17 December. Over the years, it expanded to a whole week, up to 23 December.

1 Origins
2 Saturnalia in Literature
3 Saturnalia's relation to Christmas
4 Bibliography
5 External links


The Saturnalia was a large and important public festival in Rome. It involved the conventional sacrifices, a couch (lectisternium) set out in front of the temple of Saturn and the untying of the ropes that bound the statue of Saturn during the rest of the year. Besides the public rites there were a series of holidays and customs celebrated privately. The celebrations included a school holiday, the making and giving of small presents (saturnalia et sigillaricia) and a special market (sigillaria). Gambling was allowed for all, even slaves; however, although it was officially condoned only during this period, one should not assume that it was rare or much remarked upon during the rest of the year. It was a time to eat, drink, and be merry. The toga was not worn, but rather the synthesis, i.e. colorful, informal "dinner clothes"; and the pileus (freedman's hat) was worn by everyone. Slaves were exempt from punishment, and treated their masters with disrespect. The slaves celebrated a banquet: before, with, or served by the masters. A Saturnalicius princeps was elected master of ceremonies for the proceedings. Saturnalia became one of the most popular Roman festivals which led to more tomfoolery, marked chiefly by having masters and slaves ostensibly switch places. The banquet, for example, would often be prepared by the slaves, and they would prepare their masters' dinner as well. It was license within careful boundaries; it reversed the social order without subverting it.

The customary greeting for the occasion is a "io, Saturnalia!" — io (pronounced "yo") being a Latin interjection related to "ho" (as in "Ho, praise to Saturn").

Saturnalia in Literature

Seneca the Younger wrote about Rome during Saturnalia around AD 50:
It is now the month of December, when the greatest part of the city is in a bustle. Loose reins are given to public dissipation; everywhere you may hear the sound of great preparations, as if there were some real difference between the days devoted to Saturn and those for transacting business....Were you here, I would willingly confer with you as to the plan of our conduct; whether we should eve in our usual way, or, to avoid singularity, both take a better supper and throw off the toga.

Horace in his Satire II.7 (published circa 30 BC) uses a setting of the saturnalia for a frank exchange between a slave and his master in which the slave criticizes his master for being himself enslaved to his passions. Martial Epigrams Book 14 (circa AD 84 or 85) is a series of poems each based on likely saturnalia gifts, some expensive, some very cheap. For example: writing tablets, dice, knuckle bones, moneyboxes, combs, toothpicks, a hat, a hunting knife, an axe, various lamps, balls, perfumes, pipes, a pig, a sausage, a parrot, tables, cups, spoons, items of clothing, statues, masks, books, and pets. Pliny in Epistles 2.17.24 (early second century AD) describes a secluded suite of rooms in his Laurentine villa which he uses as a retreat:
...especially during the saturnalia when the rest of the house is noisy with the licence of the holiday and festive cries. This way I don't hamper the games of my people and they don't hinder my work/studies.

Macrobius in Saturnalia I.24.23-23 wrote:
Meanwhile the head of the slave household, whose responsibility it was to offer sacrifice to the Penates, to manage the provisions and to direct the activities of the domestic servants, came to tell his master that the household had feasted according to the annual ritual custom. For at this festival, in houses that keep to proper religious usage, they first of all honor the slaves with a dinner prepared as if for the master; and only afterwards is the table set again for the head of the household. So, then, the chief slave came in to announce the time of dinner and to summon the masters to the table.

The Saturnalia was originally celebrated in Ancient Rome for only a day, but it was so popular it soon it lasted a week, despite Augustus' efforts to reduce it to three days, and Caligula's, to five. Like (Christian) Christmas, this important holy day (feriae publicae) was for more than fun and games. Saturnalia was a time to honor the god of sowing, Saturn. But again, like (Christian) Christmas, it was also a festival day (dies festus) on which a public banquet was prepared. An effigy of the god was probably one of the guests.

The poet Catullus describes Saturnalia as the best of days. It was a time of celebration, visits to friends, and gift-giving, particularly of wax candles (cerei), and earthenware figurines (sigillaria). The best part of the Saturnalia (for slaves) was the temporary reversal of roles. Masters served meals to their slaves who were permitted the unaccustomed luxuries of leisure and gambling. Clothing was relaxed and included the peaked woollen cap that symbolized the freed slave. A member of the familia (family plus slaves) was appointed Saturnalicius princeps, roughly, Lord of Misrule.

Saturnalia's relation to Christmas

The factual accuracy of part of this article is disputed.

The dispute is about relevancy and accuracy. Please see the relevant discussion on the talk page.

This does not cite its references or sources. Please help improve this article by introducing appropriate citations. (help, get involved!) This article has been tagged since June 2006.
There is a theory that Christians in the fourth century assigned December 25th (the Winter Solstice on the Julian calendar) as Christ's birthday (and thus Christmas) because pagans already observed this day as a holiday.

It is also possible to see it as early Christians replacing the Pagan celebration in an act of triumphalism. However, others claim that early Christians independently came up with the date of December 25th based on a Jewish tradition of the "integral age" of the Jewish prophets (the idea that the prophets of Israel died on the same dates as their birth or conception), and a miscalculation of the date of Jesus' death. It is even sometimes claimed that Aurelian moved the feast of Sol Invictus to December 25th to co-opt the Christian celebration.

The Romans also practiced many traditions similar to Christmas; specifically the "Christmas tree", though the Christmas tree itself is a later development in the celebration of Christmas (having its origins in Germany, possibly during the Reformation). The Romans often cut down evergreens and decorated them to pay homage to Saturn, the god of farming. This was to honor the fact that the evergreens remained alive during the harshness of winter in the Mediterranean. It was also traditional for Romans to exchange gifts during this holiday. These gifts were customarily made of silver, although nearly anything could be given as a gift for the occasion. Several epigrams by the poet Martial survive, seemingly crafted as riddling gift-tags for gifts of food. The medieval celebration of the Feast of Fools was another continuation of Saturnalia into the Christian era.


Excluding the section on Christmas, and by Georges Bataille, a good deal of this article (most of the origins section, except for the last two sentences, and the literature section, except for the quote by Seneca) was taken from a March 2005 handout from the course "Roman Leisure" by Professor Woolf of the University of St Andrews, who listed these sources: Balsdon, "Life and Leisure in Ancient Rome" p 124-5. Beard, M. North, J. and Price, S. "Religions of Rome. Vol II A Source Book, numbers 5.3 and 7.3. Dupont 1992 p 205-7. And the Oxford Classical Dictionary sv. Saturnalia.


Blogger QuakerDave said...

Of course you realize that these last two posts have made you part of the war on Christmas...

Good for you.

Blogger Yoga Korunta said...

Thank you, Quaker Dave! It hadn't occurred to me that these posts would be taken that way, but it's pleasing to think that now. The intent was to inform others that this time of the year has long been marked by celebration in other cultures. The Bible thumping Christians try to usurp the season.

Blogger pissed off patricia said...

Wow, this is all news to me.

Blogger Yoga Korunta said...

The fundies also wish for Murkans to think that the Bible was written in English, that Christ's death wasn't a political assassination, and that a heavenly reward follows those tithes and offerings!


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