Dafna asked me to write about the Roman Saturnalia, a festival in honour of Saturn.

“Inspired by Richard’s musing about Christmas – she said – I just discovered the term: ‘Beginning in the week leading up to the winter solstice and continuing for a full month, Saturnalia was a hedonistic time ….’ Sounds like fun.”

So here we are Dafna, although my mind is blurred by all this saturnalian revels, starting in Italy on Dec. 24 and ending with the Epiphany, Gen. 6.

Quite a long time isn’t it.

Ma poi ecco l’Epifania
che tutte le feste si porta via.

Saturn & the Golden Age

Saturn, the Roman god of seed and sowing, very ancient according to sources, had his temple built at the foot of the Capitoline hill. It housed a wooden (later ivory) statue of the god filled with oil, holding a scythe and whose feet bound with woollen threads were released only in the days of the Saturnalia – Dec. 17 onward.

The temple was rebuilt three times and today’s eight-column remnants (see the image below) represent what is left of its last remaking.

It is no coincidence, I believe, that the temple also housed what was most precious in Rome (coins, ingots etc.,) ie the city treasury or aerarium. Why?

Because to the Roman mind Saturn – who defeated by his son Jupiter had found refuge in Latium, on the Capitol – had brought to the Romans and Latins the mythical Golden Age (Aurea Aetas,) an era of bliss when men were equal, laws not necessary, spring eternal, earth spontaneously offering its blonde corn and rivers of milk and nectar marvellously flowing.

The temple of Saturn in the west end of the Roman Forum. Only the front portico with its 8 columns is now left standing. Click for attribution and to zoom in.

Words from the Past

Mario: “Wow, the Golden Age. Were men of solid gold too?”
MoR: “Possibly. Yes, if I well interpreted Lucian’s Saturnalia.”

Let us then listen to the arcane words of Ovid just to catch glimpses of it all (Metamorphoses, I, 89 & ff.)

aurea prima est aetas
(the Golden Age is first)
sponte sua sine lege fidem rectumque colebat
(which spontaneously, without laws, the true and the good nurtured)
nec supplex turba timebat iudicis ora suis, sed erant sine vindice tuti
(no crowd of suppliants fearing their judge’s face: they lived safely without protection)
mollia peragebant otia gentes
(in soft peace people spent their lives )
ver erat aeternum
(Spring was eternal)
per se dabat omnia tellus … fruges inarata ferebat
(by itself earth gave all … wheat, unmanured, bore)
flumina iam lactis, iam flumina nectaris ibant
(sometimes rivers of milk flowed, sometimes streams of nectar)

Re-enacting a Lawless Age

Now it is clear that the Saturnalia was a sort of re-enactment of such primordial, lawless age when men lived in equality and abundance of all.

During Saturnalia the rich gifts of the earth were celebrated with feasts and banquets where celebrators, heated with wine, were allowed to trans-gress unto higher (sometimes lower) states of mind which could include wild games, spirituality, esoteric acts, gambling, sexual promiscuity, exchange of gifts, and where slaves were given the broadest license which reminded the ancient rule of equality amongst men. Many similar ancient collective ceremonies (like the rites of Dionysus known in Rome as the Bacchanalia) were often referred to by the Greek term ὄργια or the Roman term orgia.

[Note that the old terms are only partially connected with the modern term ‘orgy’, if only for the fact that they had a religious character]

Unlike the cult of Saturn almost unknown outside Latium, Saturnalia became the most popular festival in every province of the empire relished by the people of any social condition until the triumph of Christianity.

The Christians couldn’t entirely abolish Saturnalia so they absorbed it into Christmas and this pagan festival survived also in other disguised forms as we shall see (in Italy, England, Germany, France etc.)

Let us try to better understand. A few aspects of Saturnalia may in fact sound weird to us modern people.


Cycles and Rites of Passage

Saturnalia belonged to those rituals typical of the most ancient agricultural cultures all the over world.

Such cultures had a cyclic more than a linear view of time.

Universe, history repeated themselves in an eternal return to mythical ages in a way that the end of a cycle (light, sun, year, moon or season cycles) coincided with a new beginning; that dissolution coincided with regeneration; that chaos, lawlessness and transgression transmuted themselves into a new order where people felt renewed and ready to get back to norm.

These passages were celebrated in festivals where “such dissolution – Chiara O. Tommasi Moreschini argues – we notice in the overturning of social hierarchy and in sexual promiscuity, a way to achieve fertility; we notice it in Sacaea, a festival in Babylon or in Pontus in honour of the goddess Ishtar or Anaitis which included, among the rest, a king disguised as servant; in the Zagmuk celebrated in Mesopotamia at the beginning of the year and comprising both sexual license and a symbolic dethroning of the king; in the Kronia [in Athens and Attica, MoR] and in the Roman Saturnalia [Roman Saturn and Greek Kronos sort of merged] but also in women-only festivals like the Greek Thesmophoria [in honour of Demeter] or like the Bona Dea rituals in Rome [of which a description is in our Sex and the city (of Rome) 2] where women were offered a chance to indulge in some excess in their own way.”

Traces in Modern Minds

Now I believe this whole spiritual past (plus the evelasting effects of nature changes) left deep traces in today’s minds. We still feel this deeply emotional (and sometimes distressing) end-beginning of something during the Christmas / New Year festivities, like a seismic shift that takes hold of us a bit. And at the same time we feel the family sweetness and Christian religious vibrations.

Which brings us to Christ’s birth.

Leaf disc dedicated to Sol Invictus (Unconquerable Sun.) Silver, Roman artwork, 3rd century AD. From Pessinus, Asia Minor. British Museum. Click for attribution

Saturnalia, the Sun God & Christ’s Birth

Given the popularity of Saturnalia the founders of Christianity desiring to win the pagans to the new faith absorbed the Saturnalia into the celebrations of the birth of Christ.

Saturnalia started Dec. 17 and ended Dec. 25, day of the winter solstice according to the old Julian (Julius Caesar’s) calendar (12/21 according to ours, the Gregorian.)

Now, when was Christ born? No one knew exactly – although some biblical evidence suggests Spring.

It was Pope Julius I who in 350 CE chose Dec. 25 (winter solstice according to Caesar’s calendar.) Which proved a wise decision not only because of Saturnalia end date but also because in that same 12/25 the birth of Mithra / Sol Invictus, the sun god, had long been celebrated – the winter solstice being in fact the death-rebirth of the sun.

And, it must be said, the sun god in all his forms was very popular. Before it was gradually replaced by Christianity Sol Invictus was actually the official cult of the late Roman empire.

“According to Tom Harpur (The Pagan Christ) “few Christians today realize that in the 5th century CE [so 4 centuries after the birth of Christ!] pope Leo the Great had to tell Church members to stop worshipping the sun.” ”

Mario: “I read something in a forum: this “rumour that the Saturnalia generally degenerated into a big party with orgy and drinking … it’s ironic in that Christians use this day to celebrate the birth of their Saviour who came to save them from such sins.”

MoR: “Well, as I have said, we all feel – a Westerly universal feeling – like a strange conflict during these holidays: between holiness and fun, excess and good-will, religious /family feelings and pagan consumerism.”

MoR: “A conflict generated perhaps by that old compromise – eg the adaptation of Pagan rites to Christian rites – and absent probably at the times of the Saturnalia, when trans-gression and religion (trans-gression in the original sense of ‘going beyond’, from Latin trans + gradior) were not always separated as they are today. On the contrary, they at times coincided. τὰ ὄργια or orgiae, characteristic of mystery cults, were a supremely mystical & ethical experience, which is incomprehensible today, after almost two thousand years of Christianity.”


Read part 2:

Roman Saturnalia. Frenzy, Banquets, Slaves and Gifts (2)

63 thoughts on “Survivals of Roman Saturnalia in Christmas, New Year and Carnival? (1)

  1. An enchanting, resonating post, Roma.

    ” …It housed a wooden (later ivory) statue of the god filled with oil, holding a scythe…”

    Was there not an ancient ritual whereby men spread their semen on the ground to ensure the fertility of mother Earth?


    1. Possibly not in Rome but I don’t know. Spilling semen is abhorred by the Christians – who either misunderstood a Bible passage on Onan or were shrewd enough to profit by it – but not by most Pagans.

      Most ancient cultures revered body fluids. I cannot say more.


      1. Ah ah ah Britannia, Mother Earth is solid enough to bear the pain of my absence.
        I guess the Romans of any time – in which number I humbly include myself – usually prefer to spill their seed in the right place.


  2. Well into the 1800s, before massive industrialisation and exodus from rural Québec areas, “Les Fêtes” began after Midnight mass on Christmas eve and ended after “Les Rois” (Epiphany). It was a quiet time on the farms and so long as the chattel was cared for anything could go. People went visiting one another, the whole village was on the move.
    Eating, drinking, dancing and general merriments were the order of the day. The parrish priests called for moderation…but not always very successfully.
    “Le quêteux du village” then had a ball because, maybe to atone for their sins, people were extra generous with him and he was welcomed into any house or party he choose to visit. Since the beggar usually visited several villages, he thus had a good time sending off the old year and welcoming in the new one. That tradition lingers on today with the Christmas and New Year special meals served in homeless people shelters and popular kitchens all over Québec and Canada.


    1. Fascinating contribution Paul. You made me live Québec rural peace and culture.

      I tried to find out about this “quêteux du village”. He was a beggar, though loved by all. Had he any ‘leading’ role in the “fêtes”? In which case he could be a survival of the ‘king’ of Saturnalia, a regal parody. A person in homes was chosen by lot and would order one ‘subject’ to dance, another to sing etc.

      Until not long ago there were a Lord of Misrule in England, an Abbe de Liesse in Lille, France etc. They ruled over Christmas revels.


      1. Our beggars did not have the role you describe but were welcomed to the table, at least in the kitchen, for a good meal and allowed to sleep in the stable or in the hay loft.


        1. Un cas de charité chrétienne donc, tout à fait différent (et même mieux), although feelings of good will were present in Saturnalia as well.


          1. without reading further comments… the jews have this custom on passover – to welcome a stranger/beggar to the table. no connection at all to saturnalia or christmas ?!


    2. @Paul,
      Once in Autumn, while sailing all the way down the Saint Lawrence river into Quebec city, I viewed lovely, charming remote homes/farms cascading to the banks of the river, on either side. I imagined what it would be like at yuletide when the river is beautifully frozen and all is hushed and stilled.

      It’s great to have this insight (merriment) from you.


      1. Geraldine, the river no longer freezes over. The winters are milder, dredging has made the river flow faster and icebreakers keep the channel clear all year round for navigation.
        Some of those farms are still operating but several have become more of a tourist resort. The scenery remains beautiful and mostly quiet…even in summer.


        1. @ Paul,
          Merci, Paul.
          ….so the channel is opened entirely even from the Atlantic in wintertime. I saw home movies of the harbour whitened once and I assumed it was frozen and that the river (although moving beneath) was dangerously stilled by ice. Icebreakers take the romance out of it.

          How lovely and gentle the people are in your region. They must truly enjoy the compassionate spirit of Christmas.


    1. Hi Thomas,

      Thank you. I only hope this topic is not disturbing in this period of the year, especially to those who live Christmas with spontaneous Christian feelings, thinking about Jesus. This surely was not my intent.

      Exploration of historical roots of festivals, traditions etc. can conflict with believers’ ideas that some events have an outside-history significance.

      I wonder if in one’s heart historical reflection and immediate whole-hearted participation can coexist.


      1. That’s a very good question. I suppose if a person takes their learned “history” as fact (which I guess is another term for faith) the real facts can be disturbing. That’s why a lot of people choose to ignore or condemn facts. Too bad that ignorance is a lifestyle choice today!


          1. agreed guys! but so far you have response from jews, agnostic and atheist – don’t think you will offend/conflict with “facts” 😉


          2. And an aspiring Christian, Dafna. Christianity must be the most overlaid with dogma, conflict, delusion, political interference and sheer fiction.


          3. dearest richard,

            i did notice this omission after my post… i’m only an aspiring jew myself.

            the microcosm within the macrocosm is my evidence of some higher origin, although i would not set man as the mean.

            perhaps you are being a bit hard on christianity?


          4. Dafna, omission for no reason except for the fact that I didn’t know how to reply for some weird reason.

            Religion is a complicated thing, and often we don’t know what is happening in our hearts.


  3. When I was in high school, my father gave me a book by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie called Carnival in Romans. It was my first clue that the world might be wider than my anglo upbringing suggested.

    “…slaves were given the broadest license which reminded the ancient rule of equality amongst men.”

    I always wonder whether these role-reversing games act as a catharsis and reduce social unrest, or remind people of the injustice of dramatic economic disparity and encourage a demand for change.

    I don’t know.


    1. I always wonder whether …or…

      I think both, but I’m more for the catharsis thing. Saturnalia represented like a safety valve for all social levels, since Roman society was strict though different from ours.

      Surely, the tragedy of being a slave was only temporarily lessened. In Petronius’ novel a slave crosses a line and is cuttingly reminded it’s not December time.

      Italian carnivals were generally promiscuous and more equal socially. The beautiful Venetian masks for example had the role of protecting the identity of the wearers.


  4. Bravo, Man of Roma!

    What a magnificent teacher you are. I loved the connections here, all the way back to Ishtar.

    It makes perfect sense to have Christ’s birthday four days after the “darkest day of the year.” When connected to the celebrations of Saturnalia, I see now why Julius I picked out December 25.

    I also see, now, why so many feelings contrast during this time of year.

    btw, thank you Richard and Giovanni for entertaining me so in the above comment thread. Where you choose to spill your semen is something that only you men can brag about.



    1. Bravo is excessive. I just had some fun.

      I also see, now, why so many feelings contrast during this time of year.

      Only an hypothesis of mine.

      Men are supposed to be entertaining to women, and yes, our … ways … sometimes are only ours, Richard’s fault this time for a change 😉

      Btw, I just commented on his tremendously *beautiful writing* on mathematics he wrote for you. Hats off. Britannia, whatever one can say, is always Britannia, still ruling over so many things.

      PS (update)
      Dec. 25 was not four days after the “darkest day of the year” but the “darkest day of the year” itself, according to the old Julius Caesar’s calendar. See my comment below on this confusing point.


  5. @Jenny

    When I was in high school, my father gave me a book by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie called Carnival in Romans. It was my first clue that the world might be wider than my anglo upbringing suggested.

    Many anglos more willingly now recognise the contribute of ‘non Nordic’ cultures. So it should be my turn to add what it is well known: ie that as for Christmas there are ‘Nordic’ (and many other) influences as well.

    The Germanic (Norse) Yule feast for example influenced our Christmas quite a lot too. But I leave it to any Man or Woman of Germania / Anglia willing to explain it to us 🙂


  6. I find it interesting that Saturn, originally a god of plenty and excess, had morphed by the Middle Ages into a much more dour and restrictive archetype, so that in English we say “saturnine” to denote a certain sharp, humorless, ascetic appearance.

    It is enantiodromia, the metamorphosis into the polar opposite. Which is exactly what happens at the solstices — contraction transforms into expansion and the reverse.

    I don’t know about anyone else, but I am (irritatingly) susceptible to weather and seasons, so that I actually pick up a change in the quality of light around this time, and it makes me optimistic in defiance of anything that is actually happening in my life. I get the same feeling that I think sports fans have when their team is winning. Coming right after the reactions to December — when I feel very introverted, as if I want life to be suspended, and really hate all the holiday commotion — it’s quiet, but vivid all the same. I can only imagine how this might have affected people before electric light, when the length of day was more viscerally experienced.

    I don’t know why Saturn changed from a god of instinctive life and plenty into a god of restriction and limitation (Kronos, = Chronos or mensuration). But it adds to the schizoid character of these solstitial festivals.


    1. You give me the opportunity to research a bit. I’ll talk randomly a bit (and verbosely.)

      This Enantiodromia principle …I checked: conceived by Jung, from Heraclitus.

      I have talked about such ‘coincidence of opposites’ in the present post after all (solar death and rebirth, cycle of dissolution and regeneration, with possible psychological effects on us, of which you give us an interesting personal testimony: I am often ‘lunatic’ during these holidays too, which, for a ‘solar’ shift …)

      I am researching for Saturnalia 2, and Dionysus seems to fit into this enantiodromia thing: male and female (hermaphroditism), animal (Minotaur and snake) and god, womanish boy and solemn bearded man, a deity inclined to play but also to kill etc. (awesome god)

      This morphism of Saturn during time could depend on forces seeking balance (enantiodromia), or to unconnected influences from eastern astrology-astronomy. After all Saturn as a god was almost unknown outside Latium. But the entire Greco-Roman world (hundreds of cultures) learned astrology from the Babylonian-Chaldeans who had identified 5 planets: Venus, Mercury, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn, corresponding to 5 of their gods.

      Well, I cited the Roman names: Jupiter was in truth Marduk, Venus Ishtar and so on.

      Although, like the Babylonians, the Greco-Romans used astrology mostly for guessing the future. The personal horoscope came later in the Middle Ages, if I’m not wrong, and for all of us, not only for the Anglo-Saxons of course.

      I wonder where this horoscope came from. I always hated astrology. Due to it in any case, to the Roman Saturn, a jolly figure (a bit like Santa), was added by the middle-age astrologer the saturnine temperament (bitter, sardonic, melancholic) belonging to those born under the influence of Saturn. Opposite to jolliness in fact (but Saturn had a dark side: he castrated his father Uranus!) A bit of research could lead to different conclusions, but Saturn the god and Saturn the planet must be connected in some way. The dark side? In any case, enantiodromia is well documented as for Dionysus, and it could not work work for Saturn.

      Kronos (= Saturn) and Chronos (god of time) were though two totally different gods.

      But that the character of these solstitial festivals is schizoid, is beyond any doubt (or so I believe).


      1. At some point the two gods seem to have been conflated, but that wouldn’t be the first false etymology in linguistics.

        I think of astrology as an interesting form of poetry, an attempt to characterize the evolution of one principle into another. Before more observational attempts to describe human character by the ways that people confront their experience (introversion-extroversion, thinking-feeling and so on, as in Jung) I think it stood in a bit for psychology. As for prediction I suspect all attempts to do so involve the use of external images and ideas as meditation tools. (I once read a palm and predicted several details about the person’s death later that day, though I didn’t know it was a death I was predicting. Not making that up. I was totally winging it, and couldn’t do it again on a bet, but was just drunk enough that concentrating on the palm set off a string of images in my head.)

        Janus of course, union of opposites too.

        I find it curious that there is so much less emphasis on the dual nature of the summer solstice, but maybe I am looking at the wrong cultures.


  7. @Cheri

    Dec. 25 was not four days after the “darkest day of the year” but the “darkest day of the year” itself, according to the old Julius Caesar’s calendar.

    Christ being born in the winter solstice (25 to them, 21 to us) – day of death and rebirth of the sun – was thought both symbolical and convenient to the Christian Church since many people still adored the sun god.

    Now the winter solstice falls on Dec. 21 instead, since Pope Gregory XIII changed the calendar in 1582, today the international de facto standard.

    I added links in the text to the Julian and Gregorian Calendars since this stuff is confusing (plus implies maths).

    And I realise I mention the Catholic Church and the papacy quite a lot, but I’m no Papist – whatever this may mean – these are just facts.


  8. Thank you, Man of Roma, for this clarification. As you know, anything that uses math might be an opportunity for a big red X by it, provided the name cheri block is at the top of the paper.

    I confess that I had to retake Algebra 1 and 2. Only in geometry did I have some understanding.

    There….I’ve confessed to your scholarly readership, some of whom, dwarf me. That’s Ok. I am only 5’2″.



    1. Ah ah ah, a big red X for me too. But I regret it you know? The poetic (plus knowledgeable) passion I see in Richard and Dafna for math … I think we missed a big part of human knowledge. But les jeux sont faits.

      Your scholarly readership, some of whom, dwarf me

      Oh don’t say such stupidities. You are much cultured yourself!


  9. dear MoR,

    thank you for this post. i have not been able to read it or the response, because my mother has been in hospital with a burst appendix. yes burst! exploded! and she never called for help or went to the doctor.

    this is the 3rd time this year she has let something go until it was too far. i am helpless.

    i am not sure what is worse, the knowing that one parent seems determined to let herself die or knowing that soon after one parent passes the other will follow because such is their symbiotic relationship.

    yours truly,



    1. As I said above, I hope your mother is better. I read in Richard’s blog that she’s just out of hospital and about your radio silence. Auguri, good wishes.


  10. oh my. can’t keep up… further comments to come.

    very interesting to note that “Unlike the cult of Saturn almost unknown outside Latium, Saturnalia..” is different.

    also MoR not the first pagan holiday to be absorbed by christianity… St. Valentine’s Day? for another post?


    1. Well, Saturn remained a mainly city-of-Rome-Latium-people thing, while Saturnalia which took a lot from Kronia (a mainly Athens-Attica thing, but I need to check better) became the most popular festival among the folks of the empire. According to Gordon J. Laing we have clear traces of it in England (until recently the North Staffordshire farm-servants holiday extended from Christmas to New Year and included license given by masters to servants) or in middle-ages France, in Rouen and Evreux, for example, where the master of revels (= king of Saturnalia) was called Abbas Conardorum, a really funny name indeed (wonder if it’s funny to Paul too, the only real French-speaking here).

      St. Valentine’s Day? If I can trace something interesting related to my themes, why not. You are an excellent inspirer Dafna!


      1. Lupercalia

        mom will take a long time to recover – the appendix burst, this is dangerous for anyone especially with her advanced age. thanks for the good thoughts.


        1. Lupercalia … you are merciless. I’m still sweating for Saturnalia part 2.

          Hope all goes well with her. A mother is a mother. Let’s cross fingers.


  11. Greetings, Man of Roma.
    Warm wishes to you for the coming year.

    I shall have to read this Saturnalia post in more depth tomorrow. There is much to absorb and my hands are too cold to stay online, having only returned (to where I’m not)today.


    1. Welcome back! Relax and take care of the jet lag. A pleasure to have you here again. I like your eerie words: returned ‘to where I’m not’.


  12. @Dafna

    I am very saddened by what is happening to your mother. Don’t worry about replying. I am the one to be grateful to you because you pushed me to do some work and research.


  13. Reblogged this on The Notebook and commented:

    Visto che siamo quasi al solstizio d’inverno, periodo in cui le giornate sono assai buie e che per noi coincide con le feste natalizie e per gli antichi romani con la festa dei Saturnali, ribloggo un mio testo scritto in inglese su quella festa, la più importante di tutto l’impero romano. Qui trovate la traduzione in italiano. Enjoy.


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