There’s no time quite like Saturnalia*. Especially in New York, where square-footage challenged apartment dwellers load trees by the linear foot into their homes.
Is it for the sake of tradition or is it for pine scents wafting throughout the air? We may never know. A happy and healthy Saturnalia to all. Here’s to being the best possible people we all can be.
What is Saturnalia*?
Saturnalia, the most popular holiday on the ancient Roman calendar, derived from older farming-related rituals of midwinter and the winter solstice, especially the practice of offering gifts or sacrifices to the gods during the winter sowing season.
By the same token, the pagan celebration of Saturn, the Roman god of agriculture and time, began as a single day, but by the late Republic (133-31 B.C.) it had expanded to a weeklong festival beginning December 17. (On the Julian calendar, which the Romans used at the time, the winter solstice fell on December 25.)
HOW THE ROMANS CELEBRATED SATURNALIA
During Saturnalia, work and business came to a halt. Schools and courts of law closed, and the normal social patterns were suspended.
People decorated their homes with wreaths and other greenery, and shed their traditional togas in favor of colorful clothes known as synthesis. Even slaves did not have to work during Saturnalia, but were allowed to participate in the festivities; in some cases, they sat at the head of the table while their masters served them.
Instead of working, Romans spent Saturnalia gambling, singing, playing music, feasting, socializing and giving each other gifts. Wax taper candles called cerei were common gifts during Saturnalia, to signify light returning after the solstice.
On the last day of Saturnalia celebrations, known as the Sigillaria, many Romans gave their friends and loved ones small terracotta figurines known as signillaria, which may have referred back to older celebrations involving human sacrifice.
Saturnalia was by far the jolliest Roman holiday; the Roman poet Catullus famously described it as “the best of times.” So riotous were the festivities that the Roman author Pliny reportedly built a soundproof room so that he could work during the raucous celebrations.