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 addi-tion, 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 “sat-urn” 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.
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 (see also BOY BISHOP; 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 Satur-nalia. 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 dur-ing the rest of the year. They expressed good will towards one an-other 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 serious-minded 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 lan-guage. Today we use the word “Saturnalian” to refer to celebrations characterized by excess and abandon.