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see SaturnSaturn,
in Roman religion and mythology, god of harvests, later identified with the Greek Kronos. Little is known of the origins of his cult. His reign was regarded as the Golden Age. He was the husband of Ops and the father of Jupiter, Juno, Ceres, Pluto, and Neptune.
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, in Roman religion.
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The ancient Romans honored the god Saturn in a midwinter festival known as Saturnalia. Many of the customs associated with Saturnalia reversed ordinary social rules and roles. Early Christian writers disapproved of this rowdy Roman revelry. Nevertheless, some of the customs associated with Saturnalia later attached themselves to the celebration of Christmas (see also Kalends).

Saturn and His Festival

Some scholars believe that the Romans borrowed Saturn from the Greeks by simply exchanging the deity's Greek name, Kronos, for the Roman name, Saturn (for more on Kronos, see Father Time). In addition, they assigned him a new, Roman history. Others believe that he evolved from a minor Etruscan god of agriculture. Scholars debate the meaning of the Roman god's name. Some believe the word "saturn" comes from the Latin verb for "to sow," whose root is sat. Others, however, think it evolved from saturo, which means "to fill" or "to satisfy." According to Roman mythology, Saturn ruled over the kingdom of Latium, the region surrounding Rome, as its first king during its golden age. He established the first laws and taught human beings agriculture. In this era of joy and plenty, people lived together in harmony and shared equally in the earth's bounty.

The Romans honored Saturn as the patron of agriculture and of civilized life. They held his festival at the end of the autumn sowing season when cold weather arrived in earnest. In the early years of the Roman Republic Saturnalia took place on December 17. At the close of the first century A . D ., however, the celebrations had stretched into a full week of fun ending around December 23. Many of the customs associated with Saturnalia recalled the equality and abundance that characterized Saturn's reign on earth.


Lucian, a second-century Greco-Roman writer, drew up a set of rules summarizing proper conduct during Saturnalia. Chief among these rules was the decree that "all men shall be equal, slave and free, rich and poor, one with another." This temporary equality was especially apparent at the banquets characteristic of this Roman holiday. During the rest of the year the seating arrangements, portions, and service offered at Roman feasts reflected differences in wealth and social rank among the guests. Lucian's rules for Saturnalian banquets, however, neatly erased these inequalities. At a Saturnalian feast:

Every man shall take place as chance may direct; dignities and birth and wealth shall give no precedence. All shall be served with the same wine. . . . Every man's portion of meat shall be alike. When the rich man shall feast his slaves, let his friends serve with him [Miles, 1990, 166-67].

Perhaps the slaves enjoyed the festival more than anyone else. They were exempted from their usual duties and from all forms of punishment. Furthermore, during the time of the festival they wore the felt cap given to freed slaves and could criticize and mock their masters without fear of reprisal. Moreover, at the feast held in honor of the holiday slaves sat down to eat first and were waited on by their masters.

Mock Kings

The mock kings who presided over the Saturnalian feasts offered one humorous exception to the general rule of equality. As these monarchs were chosen by lot, anyone might become king for the evening, even a slave. The king's commands had to be obeyed, no matter how outrageous. According to one observer, the king's orders might require "one to shout out a libel on himself, another to dance naked, or pick up the flute-girl and carry her thrice around the room." Christmas celebrations in medieval Europe also elevated a variety of mock authorities into temporary positions of power (seealso Boy Bishop; Feast of Fools; King of the Bean; Lord of Misrule). Many researchers trace the origins of these figures back to the mock kings who presided over the Saturnalian banquets.

Leisure and Merrymaking

Slaves were not the only people enjoying free time during Saturnalia. Schools, stores, and courts of law closed their doors for the duration of the festival. No one worked during Saturnalia except those who provided the food that fueled the feasts. In fact, Lucian's rules mandated that people put all serious business aside and devote themselves to enjoyment:

All business, be it public or private, is forbidden during the feast days, save such as tends to sport and solace and delight. Let none follow their avocations saving cooks and bakers. Anger, resentment, threats, are contrary to law. No discourse shall be either composed or delivered, except it be witty and lusty, conducing to mirth and jollity [Miles, 1990, 166].

In addition to feasting and drinking, the Romans enjoyed public gambling during Saturnalia, an activity that was against the law during the rest of the year. They expressed good will towards one another by exchanging small gifts, especially wax candles called cerei, wax fruit, and clay dolls called signillaria. Other popular customs included various kinds of informal masquerades in which men and women cavorted in the clothing of the opposite sex. More seriousminded Romans disapproved of the drunken excesses and the noisy, carousing crowds that wandered through the streets during the festival.

Echoes of this ancient Roman holiday remain in the English language. Today we use the word "Saturnalian" to refer to celebrations characterized by excess and abandon.

Further Reading

Henderson, Helene, and Sue Ellen Thompson, eds. Holidays, Festivals, andCelebrations of the World Dictionary. Second edition. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1997. Henisch, Bridget Ann. Cakes and Characters: An English Christmas Tradition. London, England: Prospect Books, 1984. Hutton, Ronald. The Stations of the Sun. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1996. James, E. O. Seasonal Feasts and Festivals. 1961. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1993. Leach, Maria, ed. Funk and Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythol-ogy, and Legend. New York: Harper and Row, 1984. Miles, Clement A. Christmas in Ritual and Tradition. 1912. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. Room, Adrian. Who's Who in Classical Mythology. Lincolnwood, Ill.: NTC Publishing Group, 1996. Scullard, H. H. Festivals and Ceremonies of the Roman Republic. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1981.
Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2003


Type of Holiday: Ancient
Date of Observation: December 17-23
Where Celebrated: Rome, Italy
Symbols and Customs: Candles, Clay Dolls (Sigillaria), Holly and Ivy, Mock King
Related Holidays: Christmas, Feast of Fools, Twelfth Night, Winter Solstice


Saturnalia was an ancient festival that was part of ancient Roman religion, which scholars trace back to the sixth century B . C . E . Roman religion dominated Rome and influenced territories in its empire until Emperor Constantine's conversion to Christianity in the third century C . E . Ancient Roman religion was heavily influenced by the older Greek religion. Roman festivals therefore had much in common with those of the ancient Greeks. Not only were their gods and goddesses mostly the same as those in the Greek pantheon (though the Romans renamed them), but their religious festivals were observed with similar activities: ritual sacrifice, theatrical performances, games, and feasts.

The ancient Roman WINTER SOLSTICE festival known as the Saturnalia was held in honor of Saturn, the god of agriculture and mythical king of Italy during its fabled "Golden Age." For seven days, all social distinctions and public business were suspended: The law courts and schools closed down, wars were interrupted or postponed, and slaves exchanged places with their masters. They sat down at the table, wearing their masters' clothes and the pilleus or badge of freedom. They could drink as much as they wanted and exhibit behavior that would normally have been punished by death or imprisonment. This temporary reversal of the social order was typical of ancient New Year's rites, which celebrated the "turning" of the year. It was often accompanied by masquerading or change of dress between the sexes, drinking, gambling, and other forms of frivolity and self-indulgence. The idea was to recapture "the good old days," when Saturn ruled and everyone was happy.

Although the festivities lasted for only seven days, the entire month leading up to the kalends (first day) of January was dedicated to Saturn. There were thanksgiving ceremonies at shrines and temples, public feasting, and private family feasts. People exchanged gifts, often in the form of artificial fruit (a symbol of fertility), CLAY DOLLS , or CANDLES . The most popular foods to serve at this time of year were figs, dates, plums, pears, and apples; fresh pomegranates and melons; sweet breads, cakes, and pastries in the shape of stars; nuts; and cider or mulled wine- all of which is now associated with CHRISTMAS. In fact, the date of Jesus' birth was deliberately set to coincide with this pagan festival, which had degenerated over the centuries into a week-long spree of debauchery and crime. It is for this reason that the term "saturnalia" is now used to describe a period of unrestrained license and revelry.



The Saturnalia was a fire festival, when homes were decorated with candles and colored lanterns. One of the gifts frequently exchanged at the Saturnalia was wax tapers (cerei), believed to be a survival of the fires that traditionally burned at the WINTER SOLSTICE, the darkest time of the year. Much like the Yule log in northern Europe, burning candles was a means of bringing fire-symbol of the blessings of the sun god-into the house. Burning candles at the time of the solstice was also meant to symbolize-and perhaps to ensure-the return of the sun's power.

Clay Dolls (Sigillaria)

Part of the celebration of the Saturnalia was a fair known as the sigillariorum celebritas, at which people could buy the small clay images they later gave away as gifts. At one time there was actually a separate festival called the Sigillaria or Feast of Dolls, held on December 22. But it was eventually absorbed into the seven days of the Saturnalia.

Although there is no hard evidence that these earthenware dolls had symbolic value or that they served as more than playthings, some scholars believe that the little clay figures of the Holy Family-Mary, Joseph, and Jesus-traditionally sold in Rome's Piazza Navona at Christmastime are the modern-day counterparts of the sigillaria exchanged as gifts during the pagan Saturnalia.

Holly and Ivy

The two plants associated with the Christmas season, holly and ivy, are also associated with the Saturnalia. Saturn's club was made from holly wood, and his sacred bird, the gold-crested wren, made its nest in ivy. The advent of Christianity, however, linked holly (spelled "holi" in Middle English) with Jesus. The berry and leaf of the holly became symbols for the blood of Christ and the crown of thorns that Jesus wore when he was crucified.

Mock King

In the early days of the Saturnalia, a mock king was chosen by drawing lots. His role was to preside over the revels, which often included making ridiculous demands of his subjects-such as asking them to dance naked. It is possible that his behavior represented the last relic of a very ancient custom, which was to have a young man take on the role of Saturn for the duration of the festival and then, when his brief reign ended, be killed or sacrifice himself on the altar by cutting his own throat. Although this bloodshed was supposed to symbolize the renewal of life at the WINTER SOLSTICE, it is also possible that the mock king acted as a scapegoat-that is, by taking his own life, he took with him the offenses of the community as a whole. But as Roman society became more civilized, this human sacrifice was no longer considered acceptable. The mock king or Lord of Misrule survived, however, and can still be found in modern-day celebrations of CARNIVAL and TWELFTH NIGHT, as well as in the medieval FEAST OF FOOLS.


Crippen, T.G. Christmas and Christmas Lore. 1923. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1990. Frazer, Sir James G. The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion. New York: Macmillan, 1931. Heinberg, Richard. Celebrate the Solstice: Honoring the Earth's Seasonal Rhythms through Festival and Ceremony. Wheaton, IL: Quest Books, 1993. Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. James, E.O. Seasonal Feasts and Festivals. 1961. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1993. King, John. The Celtic Druids' Year: Seasonal Cycles of the Ancient Celts. London: Blandford, 1995. Leach, Maria, ed. Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology & Leg- end. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984. Miles, Clement A. Christmas in Ritual and Tradition, Christian and Pagan. 1912. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1990. Santino, Jack. All Around the Year: Holidays and Celebrations in American Life. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994.


New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia
Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



in ancient Rome, the annual festival honoring Saturn. The holiday was celebrated after the harvest, during the winter solstice. The celebration was accompanied by a carnival, during which slaves became the equals of their masters and were even served by them and money was distributed to poor citizens. The ritual of the Saturnalia included the custom of presenting gifts to one another; this custom has been preserved in the rites of the Christian holiday of Christmas.

The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


December 17-23
This ancient Roman Winter Solstice festival began on December 17 and lasted for seven days. It was held in honor of Saturn, the father of the gods, and was characterized by the suspension of discipline and reversal of the usual order. Grudges and quarrels were forgotten; businesses, courts, and schools closed down; wars were interrupted or postponed; slaves were served by their masters; and masquerading or change of dress between the sexes often occurred. It was traditional to offer gifts of imitation fruit (a symbol of fertility), dolls (symbolic of the custom of human sacrifice), and candles (reminiscent of the bonfires traditionally associated with pagan solstice celebrations).
Households would select a mock king to preside over the festivities, which were characterized by various kinds of excesses—giving rise to the modern use of the term saturnalian, meaning "a period of unrestrained license and revelry."
AmerBkDays-2000, p. 804
BkDays-1864, vol. II, p. 745
DaysCustFaith-1957, p. 315
DictFolkMyth-1984, pp. 941, 974
DictWrldRel-1989, p. 182
EncyChristmas-2003, p. 711
EncyRel-1987, vol. 3, p. 98
FestRom-1981, p. 205
FestSaintDays-1915, p. 232
OxYear-1999, p. 501
RelHolCal-2004, p. 270
SaintFestCh-1904, p. 36
Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, Fourth Edition. © 2010 by Omnigraphics, Inc.


licentious December 17th feast honoring Saturn. [Rom. Myth.: Espy, 19]
Allusions—Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


an ancient Roman festival celebrated in December: renowned for its general merrymaking
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005