The Best of Days

That’s what the poet Catullus called the feast of Saturnalia.This Roman festival began mid-December and lasted from 3 to 8 days, depending upon who occupied the imperial throne. It included feasting, drinking, cavorting, and gambling; unusual clothing, abundant candles, role reversal, gifts – often gag gifts – and even a precursor to the medieval King of the Fools.

Ruins of the Temple of Saturn, which was dedicated BC 497, Roman Forum, Rome, Italy.

A religious ceremony in honor of Saturn kicked it off. In lieu of human sacrifice, effigies of human heads were offered on various altars. A public banquet followed. One tradition holds that slaves were considered equals for the week and were served first – some say by their masters. Everyone ate lavish banquet food during Saturnalia.

Private celebrations followed the initial public sacrifice and banquet. Families bathed early in the day and conducted private rituals, often including the sacrifice of a suckling pig. Here, too the class difference between slave and master – and some say also between female and male roles – was suspended or reversed.

Soldier wearing pileus, from the Louvre.

Even public garb was different during Saturnalia. The toga, the societally correct garb of the male Roman citizen, often was set aside for the Greek cenatoria, colorful “dinner clothes” otherwise considered in poor taste for daytime wear. Romans with citizen status usually went bare-headed; during Saturnalia they donned the pileus, the conical felt cap that marked a freedman. Even slaves wore the pileus during Saturnalia: everyone was “pileated.”

Roman god Saturnus. In this fresco from the House of the Dioscuri at Pompeii, Saturnus, head protected by winter cloak, holds a scythe in his right hand. Naples Archaeological Museum.

Rome may have adopted Saturnalia from the Greek holiday Kronia, hoping that the winter fest would presage the restoration of the ancient Golden Age. This fabled period was marked by peace, equality, harmony, stability, and prosperity. People needed neither to work nor to rule, since the earth provided necessities in abundance. They lived long, appeared young all their years, and passed peacefully from human into paradisiacal existence as humanity’s guardians. Accordingly, during Saturnalia, no business was conducted, no justice administered, schools and exercise regimens were suspended, and no war could be declared.

Sigillaria, 19 or 23 December (again, depending upon the will of the emperor), was the day for giving gifts. The figurines often exchanged as gifts, also named sigillaria, were sold during the festival. One demonstrated social status by the number and quality of gifts given, whether statuettes, gag gifts, candles, knucklebones and other toys (especially for children), personal items such as combs, writing tables, household utensils, masks, books, or pets. Marcus Valerius Martialis suggests that token gifts of low intrinsic value inversely measured a friendship of high quality. Sometimes  verses accompanied the gifts, calling to mind modern greeting cards.

Fresco from the Osteria della Via di Mercurio, Pompeii

In the spirit of this ancient festival and of the season of general festivity, Holler Roast wishes you a lively end of the year and a satisfying new year of growth and prosperity.

Io Saturnalia!

Header image: The striking photo of the Forum in Rome was created by Aimee Moore, Knowlton School Digital Library, Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio,

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