BFTP: Io, Saturnalia!

This post was originally published on December 17th, 2007.

For those of us who like the December Solstice holiday season to last as long as possible, starting the celebrations tomorrow for Saturnalia is a top-notch idea. It also gives me an opportunity to post my favourite astrophotography image, seeing as the ancient festival was honouring Saturn:

Saturn and its rings - photo taken by Cassini spacecraft - the pale blue dot of earth can be faintly perceived through the outermost rings

This beautiful image of Saturn and its rings looks more like an artist’s creation than a real image, but in fact, the image is a composite (layered image) made from 165 images taken by the wide-angle camera on the Cassini spacecraft over nearly three hours on September 15, 2006. The pale blue dot of earth can be faintly perceived through the outermost rings.


The Roman festival of Saturnalia traditionally lasted from the 17th to the 23rd of December, so it ends just in time for the beginning of the traditional Twelve Days of Christmas.

The Saturnalia was the most popular holiday of the Roman year. Catullus (XIV) describes it as “the best of days,” and Seneca complains that the “whole mob has let itself go in pleasures” (Epistles, XVIII.3). Pliny the Younger writes that he retired to his room while the rest of the household celebrated (Epistles, II.17.24). It was an occasion for celebration, visits to friends, and the presentation of gifts, particularly wax candles (cerei), perhaps to signify the returning light after the solstice, and sigillaria.
During the holiday, restrictions were relaxed and the social order inverted. Gambling was allowed in public. Slaves were permitted to use dice and did not have to work. Instead of the toga, less formal dinner clothes (synthesis) were permitted, as was the pileus, a felt cap normally worn by the manumitted slave that symbolized the freedom of the season. Within the family, a Lord of Misrule was chosen. Slaves were treated as equals, allowed to wear their masters’ clothing, and be waited on at meal time in remembrance of an earlier golden age thought to have been ushered in by the god. In the Saturnalia, Lucian relates that “During My week the serious is barred; no business allowed. Drinking, noise and games and dice, appointing of kings and feasting of slaves, singing naked, clapping of frenzied hands, an occasional ducking of corked faces in icy water—such are the functions over which I preside.”

This equality was temporary, of course; and Petronius speaks of an impudent slave being asked at some other time of the year whether it was December yet.

But wait, there’s more! For the pedantic amongst us who are serious about the differences between ancient calendars and our own, there several ways of measuring the dates to maximise the feasting season:

According to Julian Date (Dec. 17)
In the Julian calendar, the Saturnalia took place on Dec. 17; it was preceded by the Consualia (Dec. 15) and followed by the Opalia (Dec. 19). The celebrations typically lasted for a week (Dec. 17-23), ending just before the (late imperial) festival for Sol Invictus (Unconquered Sun) on Dec. 25 (the Solstice in the pre-Julian calendar). Before the reforms of Julius Caesar, the Saturnalia and Opalia may have been on the same day (14 before the Kalends of Jan.).
According to Solstice (Dec. 21)
At one time Dec. 17, the Julian date of the Saturnalia, was the first day of Capricornus, marking the coldest season. Since the sun now enters Capricorn on Dec. 21, the Solstice, it would be appropriate to celebrate the Saturnalia on the Solstice; the seven days of celebration would then end Dec. 27.
According to Christmas Season (Dec. 25)
The week of Saturnalian celebrations fits nicely into the Christmas-New Year week, with the Saturnalia falling on Christmas day. A variant of this is: Consualia (Dec 21/solstice), Saturnalia (Dec 24/Xmas Eve – so gifts come after ritual), Opalia (Dec 26 or 27); Saturnalia celebrations (Dec 25- 31); Lesser Dionysia (Dec 31/New Year’s Eve); then Roman New Year celebrations.

Speaking of calendars, I had long thought that the traditional 12 Days of Christmas was a British tradition that came about largely due to England finally adopting the Gregorian calendar and people noting that the eleven-day difference meant that Old Christmas Day dovetailed nicely with the Church Feast of the Epiphany in the new calendar, but I’m not finding a lot of support for that online. (I already knew that the song about the 12 Days of Christmas doesn’t have anything to do with seekrit Christian teachings). (Fun Fact: it was rather strictly held in mr tog’s childhood that any household so slovenly as to leave their decorations up after the morning of Epiphany, i.e. after Twelfth Night, was expected to leave them up for the entire year as a placation to bad luck.)

Anyway, no matter how you count it, I make it fun and games for young and old from tomorrow until the 6th of January. Bring it on!

Categories: arts & entertainment, history, Science, Sociology

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4 replies

  1. I always liked the idea of the 12 days of Christmas. I always assumed they came directly from the Saturnalia – I didn’t learn until relatively recently that it was earlier in December.
    I also grew up with the idea that it was bad luck to keep your Christmas decorations up after Epiphany, but I never heard the part about having to keep them up all year if you did.

  2. We celebrated Saturnalia at uni on the last day of semester with a big feast for all the Classics people, and the Antiquities museum has a mini-exhibition themed on Saturnalia set up at the moment. Yay Roman festivals! 😀

  3. Ha ha, the solstice! That means the hops in our garden will start flowering!


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