Tis the season for celebration. Nowhere was that more prevalent than in Ancient Rome. Saturn was responsible for the holiday season about two millennia ago. Saturn was a complex and mysterious god. He’s best known for the greatest seasonal tradition of all time, Saturnalia. He also had a beard of course.
Saturnalia predated Christmas by thousands of years and is also something that Christmas should aspire to be. Saturn was based off of the Greek god Cronus, the father of Zeus, and later labeled as a God of time. His reign was also depicted to be at the time of the Golden Age of humanity. This is where Saturnalia drew its inspiration from.
God of Festivity
Like many festivals and holidays in the latter part of December, they were all influenced by the Winter Solstice.
Saturnalia was celebrated from December 17th to the 23rd, which is right around Christmas time. The holiday completely turned society upside down during this brief time. Practitioners or should we say partiers, sacrificed at the Temple of Saturn before the all week partying spree began. The atmosphere was one of perpetual festivities followed by gift-giving, feasting and overturning social norms of the time.
It wasn’t commercialized either, but deeply cathartic and celebratory where anything could happen. People were able to gamble and slaves were seen as equals with their masters during the season.
The standard Toga was thrown off for some more standard comfortable sheets that could be worn in the streets. “IO Saturnalia,” was the rallying cry you’d heard throughout the time of the season. It was an invocation meant to provide good cheer and commence the feast.
Saturnalia was considered a holiday on the Roman calendar and was celebrated as such. Poets of this era remember the week as a time of no business being allowed, while drinking, playing games and singing naked was the norm.
The Romans really let loose. Slaves were commanded not to work and were able to wear their master’s clothing and be served at the feast. All people were considered equals during this time from the greatest senator to the children of the land.
It was the most popular time of the year. Everything good and decorative about Christmas comes from deep pagan roots. It’s a mixture from Saturnalia and Yule, where our great god Odin ruled. Wreaths and trees were decorated with ornaments made to look like stars. Cookies and even the gingerbread man can be traced back to Saturnalia.
The tradition of caroling was started by drunken revelers singing their lights out from house to house. Oh yeah, they were also naked. That probably wouldn’t work out too well in many of our sub-zero temperate climates.
Gifts & Royal Proclamations
Not much scholarly research is known about Saturn aside from his tastes for partying. You can’t really say anything negative about a God who ruled over a peaceful and bountiful Utopia without any troubles. During this time people would give one another gifts, ranging from cheap gag gifts and expensive luxurious gifts.
Another interesting part of Saturnalia was the declaration of a King or Queen of the festival. Either a man or woman would become the sole leader of the festivities or master of ceremony. The role was that of a mischievous one where they’d cause good fashioned chaos and revelry. Anyone could be the King or Queen, including a slave. They were able to command their guests to anything, which included stunts, humiliating acts and anything you could really think of.
The season continued to evolve. Christmas could learn a thing or two from Saturnalia. Perhaps we could see a cyclical emergence of some old fashioned festivities. The Bearded Brotherhood could just make it happen. Long live Saturn our Mythological Man of the Month! IO Saturnalia!