by Pat Hirst - Museum and Volunteer Guide

Roman festivals were either private (privatae) or public (publicae). Private festivals included family celebrations and funerals, while public festivals were split into three categories: statiuae (which included fixed festivals), conceptivae (moveable festivals), and imperativae (held to celebrate a victory for example, so were ad hoc). These festivals meant a break from work and the daily grind, so were an important part of life on the Roman calendar…and there were very many of them.

One of the most famous, and perhaps the most popular, of the Feriae Statiuae was Saturnalia, the feast now most closely associated with Christmas. Saturnalia was celebrated from 17th to 23rd December in the Julian calendar, and it probably originated as a farmers’ festival to mark the end of the planting season, and grew more elaborate as Rome became more powerful and confident. It was greeted by saying ‘Io Saturnalia’ (pronounced ‘Yo Saturnalia’). Some sources say this was eventually misappropriated by Santa Claus and his ‘Ho, Ho, Ho’. Several emperors had tried to restrict festivities to one or three days, but in the 3rd century AD, Caracalla decreed it was to be a week-long celebration.

Other than its association with the God Saturn, its origins are obscure, but the first record of its observance was in the middle of the 5th century BC, and it was probably still practised into the 4th century AD and beyond despite the conflict with Christianity: old habits die hard!

Saturnalia was probably observed wherever the Roman army settled, and it certainly was at Vindolanda where a writing tablet (number 301, found in 1988 and now in the British Museum, though not on display) was found from Severus (a slave) to Candidus (slave to Genialis) asking him to acquire radishes for Saturnalia. We don’t know how successful this quest was but imagine trying to get radishes in the middle of winter in Northumberland. It also begs the question of what he was going to do with them when you consider that fact that in Roman times, radishes were traditionally much larger than they are today, though modern research has found them to be rich in raphanin, allicin and allistatin, all powerful antibiotics. Radish is the root of our word radical.

Horace describes Saturnalia as ‘December liberty’ and Catallus as ‘the happiest of times’. However, not everyone agreed with this, and Pliny (the original bah humbug Scrooge), locked himself in a soundproof room so he couldn’t hear all the jollity, and was left in peace to get on with his studies.

On the first day of Saturnalia, families, relatives and anyone belonging to the household (including freedmen and slaves), threw dice to choose the ‘Saturnalicus Princeps’ or Lord of Misrule, who presided over the days’ events. General rules were overthrown, and for a few days, slaves were treated as equals, being allowed to wear their master’s clothes. Togas were cast aside in favour of brightly coloured garments, known as synthesis (literally ‘put together’), and everyone wore the pileus, a felt cap usually reserved for sole use by freedmen, so everyone at least looked equal. Some also wore masks. Slaves could gamble in the street, which was normally taboo. The Lord could order anyone in the house to do strange things supposedly without any retribution, and masters were often ordered to serve dinner to slaves - which the slaves had probably already cooked anyway. Although this topsy turvey arrangement theoretically let slaves order their superiors around, it would be a very brave servant who went too far and ordered their masters to do something truly insulting. Even though it was said that there would be no retaliation, who would know if there were?

In Rome, on the first day of Saturnalia, a pig was sacrificed at the temple of Saturn in the forum, followed by a public banquet. A replica wooden statue of Saturn was placed reclining on a couch, and a table was laid in front of it full of the delicacies that everyone was enjoying. The statue itself was released from its woollen bonds (its feet were bound for the rest of the year), and riotous behaviour ensued, with much drinking, feasting, dancing and singing. All schools were closed, and business was suspended. The normally dark and treacherous streets of the city were lit by candles, and the merriment continued late into the night. Houses were decorated with holly (sacred to Saturn), other greenery and candles were placed around altars with the image of Saturn on them. Garlands with red berries were hung over doorways and windows. It would all look very similar to our own Christmas decorations, bar the mistletoe, which belongs to a different pagan tradition.

The third day of Saturnalia, the 19th of December, was dedicated to Saturn’s wife, Opa, and was called the Feast of Opalia, (we get our word opulent from Opa). She was the goddess of abundance. Again, this incorporated much jollity and feasting, and because she was associated with the harvest and the earth, much of the feasting happened while sitting or lying on the ground.

The last day of Saturnalia, 23rd December, was a day of gift giving, usually small, simple and cheap tokens, which most could afford, so as not to distinguishing the rich from the poor. Gifts included combs, candles, purses, small lamps, wax figurines and cheap pottery. These gifts were called sigillaria, and in the days leading up to the festival, the shops would be filled with cheap trinkets sold especially for Satunalia.

The similarities to our own times are obvious. The 25th December was celebrated as the winter solstice and was also considered to be the birthday of Mithras and/or Sol Invictus, the unconquered sun.

This blog has been written as part of our Roman Holiday Project.