Happy Saturnalia! This ancient Roman holiday honors Saturn, the god of seed-sowing, and celebrates the promise of a spring harvest. Originally just one day, over the centuries the festivities grew to last a whole week, starting on December 17 and coinciding with the winter solstice.⠀
In Rome, the holiday was kicked off with a religious ceremony in the Temple of Saturn, followed by a free public banquet open to all. Businesses and law courts were closed so everyone could take part.
When the Roman poet Statius attended Emperor Domitian’s Saturnalia feast in the late first century AD, he left this five-star review: “Who can sing of the spectacle, the unrestrained mirth, the banqueting, the unbought feast, the lavish streams of wine? Ah! now I faint, and drunken with thy liquor drag myself at last to sleep.”
During Saturnalia, a time of jovial merrymaking, many social norms were relaxed and inverted. Gambling, normally outlawed, was allowed in public. According to some accounts, you were only supposed to gamble for nuts, not money, to recreate the golden age of Saturn. ⠀
Knucklebones (tali or astragaloi in Greek) were used for games of chance—they could be rolled like dice or played like jacks. As their name implies, they were originally made from the foot bones of a goat or sheep—easily accessible and cheap. They were later fashioned from all sorts of materials like wood, stone, terracotta, but also fancier mediums like translucent glass, bronze, gold, ivory, and precious gems. These “deluxe” knucklebones, pictured below, do not go together, but numerous examples have been found across the Roman Empire and are frequently depicted in painting and sculpture, suggesting the widespread popularity of the game.
In one ancient account, the god Saturn was featured describing the festival. “Everywhere there is clapping and singing and playing games, and everyone, slave and free man, is held as good as his neighbor,” he says. During the holiday-week, enslaved people could attend banquets and were waited on by their owners, and were celebrated with gifts and wine. ⠀
Strict Roman dress codes were also overturned. Instead of the formal and unwieldy toga, Romans of all ranks would put on a “synthesis,” a comfortable and colorful dinner dress that was normally considered too informal to wear in public. And everyone would wear the freedman’s cap, a conical felt hat awarded to freed slaves, to celebrate the liberty and free spirit of the holiday.
In another topsy-turvy tradition, households would appoint a mock king or “Lord of Misrule” to reign over everyone and give silly orders like telling someone to shout embarrassing insults, dance naked, or chase others around the house.
Along with drinking, feasting, and gambling, exchanging gifts was a popular Saturnalia tradition. The Roman poet Martial described something like a White Elephant gift exchange: “At this time of the year, when the equestrians and senators show off their party clothes, and even the emperor wears a freedman’s cap…accept the gift you have drawn, whether from a poor or a rich man. Let everyone give his guest an appropriate gift.”
Martial wrote epigrams (short satirical poems) for the many possible gifts of Saturnalia—fattened pigs, incense, turtledoves, glass cups, ivory knucklebones, lamps, and clay statuettes, to name a few. For a gold hairpin, Martial writes, “That your oiled tresses may not injure your splendid silk dress, let this pin fix your twisted hair, and keep it up.”
Gold rings are also included on Martial’s gift list. In ancient Rome, such rings had special meaning: during the Roman Republic, only senators, magistrates, and knights had the right to wear gold rings. Everyone else could only wear iron. By the time of the early Roman Empire, customs changed and the members of the higher classes could give a gold ring to a freeborn citizen (even a freedman), raising him in rank to a knight. During Saturnalia, a gold ring would make a fitting gift.
Martial’s ring epigram (speaking from the perspective of the ring itself) reflects fondly on the generous gifts of the good old days: “In time past friends often gave us as presents, but nowadays it rarely happens. Happy is he whose escort is a knight of his own making.” That is to say, happy is he who gave the gift of knighthood to his friend.
Wax candles and oil lamps were also popular Saturnalia gifts. During the dark days around the solstice, candles were reminders of the return of the sun after winter. In Roman homes, wax candles were placed as offerings on household altars to Saturn, especially during the final days of the festival. This was practical, too: lots of lamps were needed to light the nighttime celebrations.
This terracotta lamp, pictured below, has separate nozzles for six wicks, allowing it to burn with the strength of six little lamps. The crescent-shaped handle probably refers to Luna, the moon goddess, and the semicircle of burning flames could represent the sun itself, the god Sol. Martial’s playful descriptions of over two hundred Saturnalia gifts included a “lamp with many wicks” like this, and a “bedroom lamp”: “I am a lamp, confidante of your sweet bed. You may do whatever you will, I shall be silent.”
Drinking parties were an important part of Saturnalia, a time “to drink the most delightful drinks and to be acclaimed a better singer in your cups than the next man,” in the words of the ancient satirist Lucian. In the ancient world, wine was almost always mixed with water, and sometimes honey or spices, in a large bowl and then ladled into individual drinking cups. In the egalitarian spirit of the holiday, everyone, rich and poor, could partake. Even Cato the Elder, famous for his frugality, allocated extra wine to his farmhands (about 20 pints per person!) during the festival.
This glass (pictured above) from the Eastern Mediterranean likely held many cups of wine, and has a fittingly festive inscription: “Rejoice and be of good cheer.” Besides flowing wine, holiday feasts often included pork, since fattened pigs were a popular Saturnalia gift, as well as winter vegetables, dried fruits and dates, and sweet cakes.
Saturnalia was celebrated well into late antiquity. With the rise of Christianity, the pagan holiday was removed from official calendars but carried on as a popular secular holiday. Many of Saturnalia’s traditions, which celebrate the hope of harvest and a bright future during the dark winter, were incorporated into celebrations of Christmas and the New Year.
Wishing you and yours a very happy holiday season! Io Saturnalia!