Text: What was the Roman festival of Saturnalia? Image: Roman characters in a row under the text
Image: The Roman god Saturn

Celebrating Saturnalia

Saturnalia was one of many Roman festivals that took place throughout the year. It started as a one-day event to honour Saturn, the Roman god of farming and the harvest. It included a sacrifice of young pigs at a temple dedicated to Saturn, which were then eaten at a public feast the next day. Originally it was held on 17 December, but over the centuries it was extended from 17–23 December.

This was a public holiday, and there was a joyous, carnival-like atmosphere in the streets. People gave each other gifts and ate and drank lots. Usually, Romans followed very strict societal rules, and everyone knew their place. But, during Saturnalia, these rules were set aside, and even slaves, who had hard lives with little time off could relax and have fun. Masters invited their slaves to eat with them, and even served their slaves themselves – unthinkable at other times of the year!

Image: Emperor Domitian

Ancient Festivals

Saturnalia was a mid-winter festival and very popular, but probably not as important as Christmas is to many people today.

Some ancient sources tell us information about things that happened during Saturnalia, but none of them describe the whole festival. A commemoration poem by a Roman writer called Publius Papinus Statius describes a Saturnalia organised by Emperor Domitian, held in the amphitheatre in Rome. It began early in the day, with sweet pastries made with dates, plums, figs, apples and pears scattered to people from a rope stretched over the amphitheatre. Those attending the celebration brought baskets of bread, luxurious foods and lots of wine. Female gladiators fought in the arena and in the evening, the crowd enthusiastically shouted their thanks to the emperor.

Image: Soldiers working on building Hadrian's Wall

Hadrian's Wall

Soldiers on Hadrian’s wall would likely have honoured the Saturnalia festival too, as in the Roman calendar, festivals like this one would have been the only holidays they would have had from their daily work routine. They didn’t even have weekends off, as the five-day week plus two-day weekend we follow today did not exist for them!

However, as there were soldiers and their families from many different places across the Roman Empire stationed at the wall, many would have celebrated their own festivals and traditions. There is no evidence recorded for how people might have celebrated mid-winter on Hadrian’s Wall, so we can only guess that it might have been similar to celebrations held in Rome at the same time.

Did you know?

Two thousand years ago, "Io Saturnalia!" was the seasonal greeting which would have been said across most of Europe in December, not "Merry Christmas".  Why not try it out on your family and friends this year?

Image: a Roman man holds a lit candle in a holder

Origins of Christmas

There is no date in the Bible for Jesus’ birth, but references to the lambing season have led some people to think he was born in spring. So why do we celebrate his birth on 25 December?

December was party season for the Romans, like us, although Saturnalia finished on 23 December with the Sigillaria. This was a day of present giving, so it is compared to Christmas Day – but it’s the wrong date! Well, 25 December was also celebrated by the Romans, but as the birth of the sun god, Sol Invictus. After the Roman Empire converted to Christianity, 25 December was changed into a Christian holy day, and parts of the winter festivals were brought together into a new celebration: Christmas. The first recorded Christmas Day took place in AD 336, although this was celebrated on 6 January instead. It was moved to 25 December at around AD 354–60.

Image: a Roman woman gathering greenery to decorate with

Christmas Traditions

Lots of the Christmas traditions followed today look very similar to those the Romans took part in too. A time-travelling Roman would probably feel quite at home sitting at a Christmas table for a big dinner or joining in at a Christmas party.

During the Saturnalia festival, wax tapers and torches were lit, in a similar way to advent candles used by Christians today. Houses were also decorated with wreaths and evergreen plants. Roman people ate lots of food, drank lots of wine, played games, gave each other gifts, sang and shared tales. They also wore special cone-shaped hats called pillei. This festival is described as very joyful, and people would go around the streets singing songs, just as many go door-to-door singing carols at Christmas time today.

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