Saturnalia Celebrations

Ruins of the Temple of Saturn (eight columns to the far right) as seen in 2010, with three columns from the Temple of Vespasian and Titus (left) and the Arch of Septimius Severus (center).

Today would mark the beginning of the seven-day celebration of Saturnalia in ancient Rome. For the winter festival, the Romans made and exchanged gifts, decorated their homes with holly and ropes of garland, and carried wreaths of evergreen branches to honor the god Saturn and celebrate the solstice.

By the beginning of December, writes Columella, the farmer should have finished his autumn planting and at the time of the winter solstice (December 25 in the Julian calendar), Saturnus, the god of seed and sowing, was honored with a festival.

The Saturnalia officially was celebrated on December 17 and , acccording to Cicero, it lasted in his time for seven days, from December 17-23. Augustus limited the holiday to three days, so the civil courts would not have to be closed any longer than necessary. Partygoer Caligula extended it to five.

Saturnalia was designated a holy day, or holiday, on which religious rites were performed which included sacrifices to Saturn and Kronos.

The Temple of Saturn, the oldest temple recorded by the pontiffs, had been dedicated on the Saturnalia, and the woolen bonds which tied the feet of the ivory cult statue within were loosened on that day to symbolize the liberation of the god.

After sacrifice at the temple, there was a public banquet, which probably included an image of Saturn placed in attendance, as if a guest.

The Saturnalia was the most popular holiday of the Roman year and it sounds like it was quite a party. Catullus describes it as “the best of days,” and Seneca complains that the “whole mob has let itself go in pleasures.”  Pliny the Younger, not so much the toga party animal, writes that he retired to his room while the rest of the household celebrated (Epistles, II.17.24). It was an occasion for celebration, visits to friends, and the presentation of gifts, particularly wax candles (cerei), perhaps to signify the returning light after the solstice.