Roman Festival of Saturnalia

Post by Darci Clark

Temple of Saturn and Road to Capitoline Hill
Temple of Saturn and Road to Capitoline Hill

The ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia was celebrated from December 17th to the 23rd to honor the agricultural god Saturn. This festive season was the most popular on the Roman calendar and was a time of revelry, feasting, and gift giving, especially wax candles to signify the return of light after the winter solstice.

In Roman mythology Saturn was a beneficent king of Italy whose reign was a fabled Golden Age. To commemorate Saturn’s reign a mock king would be chosen to preside over the festivities. There are some darker accounts of this role of the King of Saturnalia. Some accounts tell how a man would be chosen to play the part of the king, enjoying all the privileges of Saturn for the season, who would then be sacrificed. This barbarous custom may have continued in remote areas of Italy, although the accounts of the festival after the fall of the Roman Republic illustrate a much more innocent version of a king issuing mischievous and nonsensical edicts to his temporary subjects.

One of the most interesting aspects of Saturnalia is the role reversal of master and slave. During Saturnalia slaves were given free license to act and speak as they pleased and their masters would even wait on them. This signified the state of society during Saturn’s Golden Age where all were equals.

Even after the rise of Christianity, Saturnalia continued to be celebrated as a secular festival. Many of the customs associated with Saturnalia have similarities with other winter solstice celebrations existing into medieval and even modern times.

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