Saturnalia: All About the Ancient Roman Winter Festival


| LAST UPDATE 12/27/2022

By Amie Alfaro
Ancient Roman Festival Saturnalia
Themadchopper, Antoine-François Callet via Wikimedia Commons

Many of our traditions today have roots that date back thousands upon thousands of years. The ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia is no different, with the origins of many Christmas traditions stemming from this Roman festival.

So, what is Saturnalia? It was the most popular holiday on the ancient Roman calendar and always occurred around the winter solstice. Many rituals practiced during the celebration were born from farming-related traditions. The pagan festival was originally dedicated to the Roman god Saturn. Saturn was the Roman god of agriculture and time and was often depicted with a scythe in his hand. A prominent temple in the Roman Forum was dedicated to him. Over the years, Saturnalia grew, and days kept being added to the celebration. There was a period of time when it was celebrated for an entire week, but no matter how long the festival was observed, it was always around the same time, toward the end of December.

Ancient Roman God Saturn
Nastasic via Getty Images
Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

During the holiday, everything was closed. People would stay home from school and work. Instead of working, they would participate in several activities. Let’s see if any of them sound familiar. From decorating their homes with greenery, like wreaths, to singing to gift giving, there were many festivities that took place during Saturnalia. There are quite a few traditions we see lasting in various forms today. Saturnalia was one of the happiest holidays on the Roman calendar. According to History, the Roman author Pliny “reportedly built a soundproof room so that he could work during the raucous celebrations.” Another tradition specific to Saturnalia had to do with the depiction of the god Saturn. Usually, his legs would be bound with rope on his statue within his temple. However, these bonds would be released during the festival to symbolize his liberation. Saturnalia was a raucous holiday that many Romans looked forward to all year round.

While Saturnalia may not be celebrated like it used to be in ancient Roman times, many traditions are still alive today. Learning more about ancient history helps us to understand how and why the things we do began.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below