A d F o n t e s

(Latin: "to the sources")

Io Saturnalia!

image In honor of Christmas, I write this post about the ancient holiday it replaced:  the Saturnalia

The Saturnalia was an ancient Roman holiday that celebrated the god Saturn on the Winter Solstice.  It was held on December 17th (=Dec 25 on the Julian calendar), until its duration was extended to 3 days under Augustus and 5 days under Caligula. I’m not sure when the festival was founded, though I know it was celebrated in the republican era. It may be that we don’t know at all (anyone out there know?). 

The festival was celebrated at Rome, and in addition to regular religious rites offered to Saturn–sacrifices, prayers, etc.–there was a general upheaval of society for the time.  Slaves were granted temporary freedom, were exempt from work, and were even allowed to insult their masters.  People gambled.  Within a family, a “Lord of Mis-rule” was chosen.  According to Catullus, it was the “best of days.”  Throughout the city there was heavy gambling, drinking, carousing, appointing of random kings, singing naked, and, of course, gift-giving.  It was a big party. 

The Saturnalia was eventually replaced by Christmas under the Christian emperors–perhaps under the Constantine after his conversion (it’s not clear under whom).  It occurred to me that there is something interesting to note with gift-giving in this connection, something I hadn’t recognized before.  When we think about the origins of gift-giving in Christmas, most people I know trace it back to the (Three) Wise Men in Matthew’s Gospel (“three” is in parentheses b/c contrary to popular belief, Luke doesn’t say there were three wise men–only 3 gifts).  This is probably not true.  It seems most likely that gift-giving at Christmas was a hold-over from the holiday it overtook.  The inclusion of the tree for Christmas celebration, on the other hand, was a later development. 

December 31, 2007 - Posted by | Uncategorized


  1. More reason to hate the pagan Christian. Can you imagine how horrible it would be if people started caroling naked?

    One side note, the story of the magi is in Matthew, not Luke.

    Comment by Keith | December 31, 2007 | Reply

  2. Well that was a silly gaffe, I knew that. Thanks!

    Comment by JD | January 1, 2008 | Reply

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