Saturnalia

saturnalia

Saturnalia [sat-er-ney-lee-uh] is an Ancient Roman festival or celebration held in honor of Saturn (Cronus), the youngest of the Titans, father of the major gods of the Greeks and Romans, and son of Uranus and Gaia. Most relevantly, Saturn is the father of Rome’s primary god, Jupiter. Saturnalia was introduced around 217 BCE to raise citizen morale after a crushing military defeat at the hands of the Carthaginians.

Originally celebrated for a day, on December 17, its popularity saw it grow until it became a week-long extravaganza, ending on the 23rd. Efforts to shorten the celebration were unsuccessful. Augustus tried to reduce it to three days, and Caligula to five. These attempts caused uproar and massive revolts among the Roman citizens.

Saturnalia 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. A Saturnalicius princeps was elected master of ceremonies for the proceedings. 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.

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 (a pretense of) disrespect. The slaves celebrated a banquet: before, with, or served by the masters. Yet the reversal of the social order was mostly superficial; 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 ‘e-o’) being a Latin interjection related to ‘ho’ (as in ‘Ho, praise to Saturn’).

Seneca the Younger wrote about Rome during Saturnalia around CE 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 CE) 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.

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).

A number of scholars view this festival as the origin of later Christmas celebrations. The Catholic church, however, has stated, ‘though the abundance of analogous midwinter festivals may indefinitely have helped the choice of the December date, the same instinct which set Natalis Invicti at the winter solstice will have sufficed, apart from deliberate adaptation or curious calculation, to set the Christian feast there too.’

The Hebrew Talmud  describe a pagan festival called Saturna which occurs 8 days before the winter solstice. It is followed 8 days after the solstice with a festival called Kalenda. The Talmud ascribes the origins of this festival to Adam, who saw that the days were getting shorter and thought it was punishment for his sin. He was afraid that the world was returning to the chaos and emptiness that existed before creation. He sat and fasted for 8 days. Once he saw that the days were getting longer again he realized that this was the natural cycle of the world, so made 8 days of celebration. The Talmud states that this festival was later turned into a pagan festival.

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