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  • Writer's pictureTastes Of History

On This Day: Io Saturnalia!

Updated: Feb 18

On This Day, December 17th, the ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia began. Held in honour of the deity Saturnus, as its name implies, the festivities were later extended through to December 23rd.

The Origin story With the conclusion of autumn planting, and to coincide with the winter solstice, Saturnus, the god of seed and sowing, was honoured with a festival. In Roman mythology, he was an agricultural deity, identified with the Greek god Kronos, who was said to have reigned over the world in the ‘Golden Age’ when humans, in a state of innocence, enjoyed the spontaneous bounty of the earth without labour. The festival to Saturnus was supposed to reflect the conditions of the lost mythical age, but not all of them were desirable. Regardless, according to the Julian calendar December 17th (a.d. XVI Kal. Ian.) was designated a holy day (or ‘holiday’) and named ‘Saturnalia’.

Public religious observances On this day, the woollen bonds which fettered the feet of the ivory statue of Saturnus within the Temple of Saturn in Rome’s Forum were loosened to symbolise the god’s liberation. The official rituals were carried out according to ‘Greek rite’ (ritus graecus) emphasising the link between Saturnus and his Greek counterpart Kronos. A sacrifice was officiated by a priest whose head was uncovered in the Greek manner since in Roman rites priests sacrificed capite velato, with their heads covered by a special fold of the toga.

Following the sacrifice, the Roman Senate arranged a lectisternium, a ritual of Greek origin that typically involved placing a deity's image on a sumptuous couch, as if he were present and actively participating in the festivities. A public banquet followed (convivium publicum) that Livy says was introduced in 217 BC.

King of the Saturnalia Imperial sources refer to a Saturnalicius princeps being elected by lot to be master of ceremonies for the proceedings. The role has been compared to, and may have been the inspiration for, the medieval Lord of Misrule [1] at the Feast of Fools [2]. To create and misrule a chaotic and absurd world, he would issue capricious commands that had to be obeyed by the other guests at the convivium. Interestingly, this figure does not appear in accounts from the Republican period. It may be that the Saturnalicius princeps was a satirical response to the rule by a princeps (the ‘first man’), the title assumed by the first Emperor Augustus to avoid the hated connotations of the word ‘king’ (rex).

Io Saturnalia! The customary greeting for the occasion was ‘Io, Saturnalia!’ which originally began after the public banquet when the festivities took place on the single day of December 17th. Pronounced ‘yo Sat-er-nar-lee-ah’, the greeting was an emotive ritual exclamation or invocation, used, for instance, in announcing triumph or celebrating Bacchus (god of wine, festivity, ritual madness, religious ecstasy, etc.), but also to punctuate a joke.

Private festivities Although probably the best-known Roman holiday, how Saturnalia was celebrated from beginning to end is not described in any single ancient source. Our modern understanding of the festival is pieced together from several accounts dealing with various aspects (Dolansky, 2011, 484). With that in mind, what follows is the generally accepted version of how Romans celebrated Saturnalia.

December 17th was supposed to be a holiday from all forms of work. Schools were therefore closed, and peoples’ exercise regimens were suspended. The courts were not in session, so no justice was administered, and no declaration of war could be made. On December 18th and 19th, which were also holidays from public business, families conducted domestic rituals. They bathed early, and those with means sacrificed a suckling pig, a traditional offering to an earth deity. As today it was customary to visit friends and the giving of gifts on December 19th or Sigillaria, so named for the small earthenware figurines given as presents. Wax candles (cerei) were also a favourite and, as some ancient and more modern authors have surmised, perhaps signified the returning light after the solstice. Children were presented toys, but it is worth noting that gifts were deliberately small and inexpensive since anything of significant value could be construed as a vulgar display of one’s social status contrary to the spirit of the season.

Martial’s 'Epigrams' Book 14, written circa AD 84 or 85, contains a series of poems each based on likely Saturnalia gifts, some expensive such, as a slave or exotic animal, some very cheap. Gifts might be as costly, but Martial suggests that token gifts of low intrinsic value were an inverse measurement of the high quality of a friendship. Indeed, he records many diverse examples including writing tablets, dice, knuckle bones, moneyboxes, combs, toothpicks, a hat, a hunting knife, an axe, various lamps, balls, perfumes, pipes, a pig, a sausage, a parrot, tables, cups, spoons, items of clothing, statues, masks, books, and pets. Richer Roman patrons might provide a gratuity (sigillaricium) to their poorer clients or dependents to help them buy gifts.

It is now the month of December, when the greatest part of the city is in a bustle. Loose reins are given to public dissipation; everywhere you may hear the sound of great preparations, as if there were some real difference between the days devoted to Saturn and those for transacting business…Were you here, I would willingly confer with you as to the plan of our conduct; whether we should eve in our usual way, or, to avoid singularity, both take a better supper and throw off the toga.’

Seneca [3], Epistulae, 18.1–2

Saturnalia was a time to eat, drink, and be merry but it is also known for reversing roles and commonly accepted behaviour:

• The participation of freeborn Roman women is implied by sources that name gifts for women, but their presence at banquets may have depended on the custom of their time. It is known that from the late Republic onward, women mingled socially with men more freely than they had in earlier times. Moreover, female entertainers were certainly present at some otherwise all-male gatherings.

• Gambling and dice-playing, normally prohibited or at least frowned upon, were permitted for all, even slaves. Coins and nuts were typically the stakes. It is often said that at all other times of the year gambling was illegal, but enforcing any law on the wider populace was hardly straightforward across the expanse of empire. It is much more likely that acts of gambling during the rest of the year simply go unremarked.

• Male citizens eschewed wearing the toga favouring instead the Greek synthesis - colourful, informal ‘dinner clothes’ otherwise considered in poor taste for daytime wear. Romans of citizen status normally went about bare headed, but at Saturnalia they donned the pileus, a conical felt cap that was the usual mark of a freedman. Ordinarily not entitled to wear one, slaves could also wear the pileus thereby removing any distinction between all and possibly symbolising the freedom of the season.

• Slaves were exempt from punishment, could treat their masters with (a pretence of) disrespect and, if allowed, could wear their masters' clothing. Role-playing was implicit in the Saturnalia's status reversals, and there are hints of mask-wearing or ‘guising’.

• Slaves were also treated to a banquet of the kind usually enjoyed by their masters. However, our ancient sources differ on the circumstances. Some suggest that master and slave dined together, while others indicate that the slaves feasted first, or that the masters actually served the food. Regardless, everyone knew that the levelling of the social hierarchy or role reversal was temporary and had limits; no social norms were ultimately threatened, because the holiday would end.

Popularity Saturnalia was the most popular holiday of the Roman year. Catullus (XIV) describes it as ‘the best of days’, while Seneca complains that the ‘whole mob has let itself go in pleasures’ (Epistulae, XVIII.3). By Cicero's time, the popularity of Saturnalia had seen it grow into a week-long celebration between December 17th and 23rd. Efforts to shorten it were largely unsuccessful: the Emperor Augustus tried to limit the holiday to three days, so the civil courts would not have to be closed any longer than necessary. Caligula later extended the festival to five days (Suetonius, XVII; Cassius Dio, LIX.6), while Claudius officially restored it to the week-long festival after it had been abolished (Dio, LX.25). Yet despite the efforts of the Emperors, Romans seem to have continued to celebrate for a full week - extended by celebration of the aforementioned Sigillaria - according to Roman provincial writer, Macrobius Ambrosius Theodosius (Macrobius, Saturnalia, I.10.24).

Influence on Christmas Indeed, Macrobius is our major source of information about the festival which was the dramatic setting for his multi-volume work Saturnaliorum Libri Septem, (‘Seven Books of the Saturnalia’, more commonly known as ‘Saturnalia’). This work, written sometime after c. AD 431, provides an account of the discussions held at the house of one Vettius Agorius Praetextatus during the holiday but also reveals how Saturnalia was celebrated. In one of the interpretations in Macrobius' collection, Saturnalia is a festival of light leading up to the winter solstice, with the abundant presence of candles symbolising the quest for knowledge and truth (Macrobius, Saturnalia, 1.1.8–9). This same ‘renewal of light’ and the coming of the New Year was celebrated in the later Roman Empire as Dies Natalis Sol Invictus, the ‘Birthday of the Unconquerable Sun’, on December 25th which has given rise to many spurious claims of Christmas’ pagan roots [4][5].

Perhaps because of the proximity of the dates the popularity of Saturnalia survived into the third and fourth centuries AD, and then as a secular celebration long after it was removed from the official calendar (Salzman, 2007, 121.). As the Roman Empire became Christianised, some of the ‘pagan’ customs influenced the seasonal celebrations surrounding Christmas and the New Year (Beard, North and Price, 1998, 124). As William Warde Fowler [6] wrote: ‘[Saturnalia] has left its traces and found its parallels in great numbers of medieval and modern customs, occurring about the time of the winter solstice’ (Fowler, 1908, 271). Indeed, many western European Christians continued the traditional Saturnalia customs while also celebrating Christmas and the surrounding holidays.

By the Middle Ages, Christmas was still a time of unruly behaviour, excessive drinking, gambling, and overeating. The tradition of the Saturnalicius princeps could still be found in the ‘Lord of Misrule’ or, as in medieval France and Switzerland, the election of a boy to be ‘bishop for a day’ on December 28th (the Feast of the Holy Innocents). The resulting boisterous or rowdy customs were common across western Europe, albeit varying considerably by region. In some parts of France, for example, during the boy bishop's tenure, the actual clergy would wear masks or dress in women's clothing, a reversal of roles echoing the traditional character of Saturnalia. During the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, reformers sought to revise or abolish practices they regarded as ‘popish’; efforts which were largely successful. Later the Puritans banned the ‘Lord of Misrule’ in England and the custom was largely forgotten shortly thereafter.

It is commonly held, but a myth, that Oliver Cromwell banned Christmas in the 1640s. In fact, it was a group of ministers appointed by parliament that in January 1645 produced a new Directory of Public Worship establishing a new church organisation and new forms of worship to be adopted and followed in England and Wales. Cromwell was not a member of this group but given that the prohibition technically remained in force during his time as Lord Protector in the 1650s, he has become guilty by association. Regardless, the Directory made clear that Sundays were to be strictly observed as holy days, but that there were to be no other holy days:

…festival days, vulgarly called Holy Days, having no warrant in the Word of God, are not to be continued[7].

Parliamentary legislation adopting the Directory of Public Worship therefore prohibited (on paper at least) the religious celebration of all other holy days, including Christmas. In June 1647 the Long Parliament reiterated this by passing an Ordinance confirming the abolition of the feasts of Christmas, Easter and Whitsun. In practice, however, the celebration of Christmas was too deeply engrained to be wholly abolished and there is plenty of evidence that Christmas continued to be celebrated, albeit sometimes in a slightly clandestine or subdued manner, in the years to the Restoration. While he was passionate about promoting godliness and moral reformation in general, as Lord Protector Cromwell does not seem to have been particularly concerned about the marking of Christmas or taken much action to prevent its celebration. With the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660 Puritan prohibitions, along with most of the other legislation of the civil war era, were swept away.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, some of the old ceremonies, such as gift-giving, were revived in English-speaking countries as part of a widespread ‘Christmas revival’. Authors such as Charles Dickens sought to reform the ‘conscience of Christmas’ and transform the formerly riotous holiday into a family-friendly occasion. Yet vestiges of Saturnalia may still be preserved in some of the traditions now associated with Christmas. The custom of gift-giving for example resembles the Roman tradition of giving sigillaria, and the lighting of Advent candles resembles the Roman tradition of lighting torches and wax tapers. Likewise, Saturnalia and Christmas both share associations with eating, drinking, singing and dancing. But that is where the similarities really end. Christmas was and remains a Christian festival celebrating the Nativity with no direct ‘pagan’ associations.



Beard, M., North, J.A. and Price, S.R.F. (1998), ‘Religions of Rome: A Sourcebook’ vol. 2, Cambridge University Press.

Cassius Dio, ‘Roman History’, Book LIX.6, Available online (accessed April 6th, 2023).

Cassius Dio, op cit, Book LX.25, Available online (accessed April 6th, 2023).

Dolansky, F. (2011), ‘Celebrating the Saturnalia: Religious Ritual and Roman Domestic Life’, in A Companion to Families in the Greek and Roman Worlds, New Jersey: Wiley-Blackwell.

Fowler, W.W., (1908), ‘The Roman Festivals of the Period of the Republic’, London, p. 271.

Macrobius, Saturnalia, 1.1.8–9; Chance, J. (1994), ‘Medieval Mythography: From Roman North Africa to the School of Chartres, A.D. 433–1177’, University Press of Florida, p. 71.

Salzman, M.R., (2007), ‘Religious Koine and Religious Dissent’, in ‘A Companion to Roman Religion’, Blackwell, p. 121.

Suetonius, ‘The Lives of the Caesars: The Life of Caligula’, XVII, Available online (accessed April 6th, 2023).


1. In England, the ‘Lord of Misrule’ (known in Scotland as the ‘Abbot of Unreason’ and in France as the ‘Prince des Sots’) was generally a peasant or sub-deacon appointed by lot to preside over the Feast of Fools and oversee Christmas revelries, which included drunkenness and wild partying.

2. The ‘Feast of Fools’ (or ‘Festival of Fools’) was a feast day on January 1st celebrated by the clergy in Europe during the Middle Ages, initially in Southern France, but later more widely. During the Feast, participants would elect either a false Bishop, false Archbishop, or false Pope. Ecclesiastical ritual would also be parodied, and higher and lower-level clergy would change places. 

3. Lucius Annaeus Seneca the Younger (c. 4 BC to AD 65), usually known simply as Seneca, was a Stoic philosopher, a statesman, dramatist, and, in one work, satirist, from the post-Augustan age of Latin literature. 

4. The Chronography of 354 (or ‘Chronograph’), also known as the ‘Calendar of 354’ or ‘Calendar of Filocalus’, is a compilation of chronological and calendrical texts produced in AD 354 for a wealthy Roman Christian named Valentinus by the calligrapher and illustrator Furius Dionysius Filocalus. The original illustrated manuscript is lost, but several copies have survived. The work is notable for containing the earliest reference to the celebration of Christmas as an annual holiday or feast on December 25th. 

5. The actual date of Jesus's birth is unknown. Early Christians adopted December 25th as the date of Christ’s birth because it falls exactly nine months after the feast of the Annunciation on March 25th that celebrated Christ’s conception. The same early tradition held that Christ was said to have died on March 25th, the traditional date of the spring equinox. This is a perfect example of parallelistic thinking commonly found in different religious doctrines. It just made sense to early Christians that Jesus’ birth should be on the same date as his death. As soon as Christ’s conception was fixed at the spring equinox, however, his birth nine months later thus became a midwinter event. 

6. William Warde Fowler (May 16th, 1847 - June 15th, 1921) was an English historian and ornithologist, and tutor at Lincoln College, Oxford. He was best known for his influential works on ancient Roman religion, specifically ‘The Roman Festivals of the Period of the Republic’ (1899). 

7. Essentially the proscription on Christmas was based on there being no mention in Scripture of Christ’s birthday being December 25th (cf. Note 5). 

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