How To Celebrate Saturnalia – For Saturn’s Sake! December 17th–23rd…
A Feast Of Festive Fun! Read About This Pagan celebration – and the real roots of the holidays!
What is Saturnalia?
A pagan festival, Saturnalia hails from ancient Rome.
It was held in honour of the god Saturn (equivalent of the Greek Cronus). Many of our Christmas traditions come from this celebration – see them listed below!
Originally held on December 17th, it was later expanded with festivities from the 17th through to December 23rd.
What Is Saturnalia?
Saturnalia was and still can be a time to cease all things considered ‘serious’.
Emperor Augustus (27BC – AD14) shortened the week to a three-day holiday, as it was all getting a bit too rowdy, raucous and chaotic, interrupting the working week.
Merry making of ancient Roman culture included giving gifts, feasting, party games and even decorating a tree – so very much like Christmas.
The Romans celebrated in remembrance of a legendary Golden Age, a time in Italy when Saturn reigned as King, teaching the inhabitants agriculture, and giving them laws.
Slavery was a thing unknown in The Golden Age, and therefore another key part of Saturnalia celebrations was equality – a change in attitude, and role reversal.
The masters served the slaves and treated them to a banquet, adults served children, and all men worshipped together.
It was very much about generosity to the poor, revelry and a publicly nominated holiday for all to enjoy. The slackened rules permitted the slaves to gamble too – even to bid for their freedom.
Not all Romans liked this pagan winter holiday, however, and it was noted that “the mob went out of control”. Early Christian authorities in particular objected, and when the Church settled on the nativity the Christians began to push back, nominating the 25th as a sombre ‘holy day’ of peace and quiet.
Still, Saturnalia was so popular it was celebrated in Rome as late as the eighth century – and I think the flavour of festivities reflect our inclinations today!
How do people celebrate Saturnalia?
Here are some of the customs I’ve found, which you might want to include in your holidays this year!
1. Wear Your Best, Bright Clothes!
Back in Roman times the aristocracy usually wore conservative clothes. However at this time of year they stepped into brightly coloured fabrics – traditionally red, purple and gold.
Slaves were treated as equals and allowed to wear nice clothes, and sit at the head of the table! Appreciate your finest threads and dress up lavishly during this week.
- Wear A ‘Pilleus’ Hat
The cap of freedom, the pillleum was a hat worn by slaves who had been liberated.
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On Saturnalia, all slaves would be considered ‘free for the holidays’, and so would wear this cap during their time off!
Show your liberation with a pillbox hat or whatever you can lay your hands on. You could even wear a Santa hat, as it looks very much the same as his hat…
2. Erect Trees, Hang Holly, Berries And Mistletoe To Honour Saturn…
Using trees to decorate at this time of year has been a ritual for thousands of years.
In ancient times, Pagans used branches to decorate their homes during the winter solstice, as it helped them think of the spring to come.
3. Give Gifts – White Candles!
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Traditional gifts that were given were ‘cerei’, white candles signifying the light after solstice and ornaments called ‘sigillariae’. The ornaments were hung in greenery as decoration – much like our trees today.
4. Eat Cookies Shaped Like People…
As part of the Saturnalia rites the Pagans ate little biscuits, which we now know as gingerbread men and Christmas cookies.
Often shaped like human beings or animals they usually boasted enlarged sexual organs, another act of rebellious debauchery!
- Feast And Overindulge, too…
A huge public feat would occur at the Temple of Saturn in Rome, and people would cut loose the feet of the statue of Saturn, which were usually bound in wool. This symbolic act let all around get loose!
5. Elect A “Lord Of Misrule”, Gamble And Play Games…
It was common practice for Pagans to ‘incarnate’ their gods and each community would pick someone to play the role of ‘Lord of Misrule’ during Saturnalia, appointed to preside over the revelry, drunkenness and wild partying.
It’s his duty to make commands such as “Sing naked!” or “Throw him into cold water!”, which have to be obeyed by guests. His purpose is to create and (mis)rule a chaotic and absurd world…
- Dance And Sing Naked In The Street
No serious business was allowed at this time of year, and what could be more silly than carolling naked?
A time of true merriment, singing naked was encouraged and was a precursor to our modern caroling tradition. Perhaps one to do this in your home…
> Sol Invictus – Invincible Sun, December 25th!
Another Roman holiday was Sol Invictus, celebrating the renewal of the Sun King or Unconquered Sun, which is linked to the winter solstice.
However this was changed under the reign of the first Christian emperor. Constantine shifted Roman culture away from paganism, and towards Christianity. He turned December 25th into ‘Christmas’.