Io Saturnalia!

Saturnalia – a Roman festival, celebrated on 17 December, originally for just one day, but eventually extending to a week (despite Augustus and Caligula trying to curtail it). The shout of ‘Io Saturnalia!’ was the salutation of the day, starting after the day’s public banquet.

It was a holiday; schools closed, courts closed – party time! A carnival atmosphere ruled. Social norms were ignored – roles were reversed, with the slaves of the household being served by their masters before the masters themselves ate; the slaves could be disrespectful to their masters without fear of punishment; gambling was permitted; it was a time of free speech. Homes were decorated with greenery and wreathes.

Roman citizens usually went about bare-headed, but at Saturnalia they wore the hat that freedman wore, and so did slaves. Everyone was equal for the day. Overeating and drunkenness was the rule and it was an odd person that remained sober!

Gifts were given at the Sigillaria on 23 December. These were often candles or figurines made of wax or pottery, and made especially for the day. This was to ensure that everyone, no matter their wealth or social status, gave and received the same level of gift, in keeping with the ethos of the festival. Costly gifts could be given, but the token gifts of much lower value inversely  measured the quality of the friendship. Sometimes verses accompanied the gifts.

Some of these observances have carried over to Christmas, due to the huge popularity of Saturnalia and the fact that it continued to be celebrated into the third and fourth centuries. Gift giving, partying, decorating the home, eating and drinking, candles…. Also, celebrating the birth of the sun god Sol, whose birthday was 25 December. All of these elements were absorbed into Christianity, with Christ’s birth (the date not mentioned in the Bible, but believed to be more springtime, due to references to lambing season) moved to December.

So, in effect, Christmas starts now.

Io Saturnalia!