The Ancient Roman Festival of Saturnalia

by Erin on December 17, 2011

Today is the 17th of December, and that can only mean one thing - time to celebrate a Roman holiday! Well, perhaps remember is a better word than celebrate. I am of course referring to the Saturnalia. Not familiar with the festival? Well, let’s explore it in a bit more detail, then.

My Webster’s dictionary has the following description of the word saturnalia: “an unrestrained often licentious celebration”. To add to that definition, few years ago I wrote the following, concise comment about the Saturnalia: “This merry Roman festival dedicated to the Roman god Saturn involved feasts and gift giving - sound familiar?” You see, the Saturnalia is an annual festival that resembles - indeed, may have inspired in part - some of our current Christmas traditions.

One of my sources for information about the Saturnalia is the Oxford Classical Dictionary. Here are some of the points made in that book about this festival. It was referred to as the “merriest festival of the year”, or “optimus dierum“, according to the Roman poet Catullus. The entry also indicates that the Saturnalia was a time when slaves were given temporary freedom from their duties and obligations, that gifts were commonly exchanged, and that there was traditionally a temporary ruler, a Saturnalius princeps or “Lord of Misrule”.

And finally I wanted to point out that it’s a coincidence that this year the Saturnalia just happens to fall on a Saturday as well. Did you notice the Saturn / Saturday connection? Well, it’s interesting. But as I am fond of saying, that’s a tale for another day.

Have a happy Saturnalia!

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