December 17 – First Saturnalia Festival

Posted on December 17, 2015

You may have heard that some of our modern Christmas and New Year's traditions harken back to Ancient Roman holiday fun—specifically, to the ancient Saturnalia festival.

Apparently we have evidence that on this date way back in 497 B.C.E. (otherwise known as B.C.), the very first Saturnalia festival was celebrated. That's more than 2,500 years ago!

Ancient Romans celebrated their god Saturn every December 17. Eventually their celebrations stretched for several weeks—from December 17 to December 23. This festival was also about light, which is why it was held around the winter solstice. For months now, the days have been getting shorter and shorter—but soon the days will begin to grown longer again. This renewal of light, plus the coming new year, were very good reasons to celebrate.

Here are some of the traditions from the Roman's Saturnalia:

  • There was an animal sacrifice with carefully carried out rituals in the Temple of Saturn.

  • There was a public banquet.

  • People didn't work.

  • In private, within families and groups of friends, there were gifts exchanged.

  • There were many parties.

  • Gambling was permitted (it was usually against the law).

  • Role-reversals were common. For example, masters would serve their slaves a meal, and masters and slaves even swapped clothing.

  • Some people decorated trees.

  • Dress codes were relaxed.

  • It was a time of generosity. Wealthy people would pay a month's rent for people who couldn't afford it, for example.

I think you can see a few likenesses between Saturnalia and Christmas...but there are plenty of differences, too. Still, holidays of all sorts evolve and change, spread and shrink, and influence other customs.

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