Saturnalia: Ancient Winter Traditions & FUN Ways to Celebrate
You walk through your city and hear wild laughter and singing coming from every street. The scent of bay laurel, spruce and fir envelopes you. You notice the evergreen garlands draped over every threshold and wall of the city. The entire neighborhood is lit up and an unshakeable feeling of joy, merriment, and even a bit of primality fills the air. And, in all honesty, you’d be lying to yourself if you didn’t feel that old familiar excitement that comes every year at Midwinter…at the Saturnalia Festival.
We decorate our Christmas tree, eat a Christmas ham and give gifts to one another not realizing where these traditions actually come from. Most of our holidays customs date back centuries, even thousands of years, and are linked to ancient festivals like Yule and Saturnalia. Here we answer the question what is the Saturnalia Festival? Explore the ancient Saturnalia traditions and learn how to celebrate it today with feasting, gifts, decorations and much more.
Table of Contents
First, What is Saturnalia?
The Saturnalia Festival is an ancient Roman holiday that mainly celebrated the Winter sowing season, as well as honored the god Saturn. The actual dates vary but most scholars agree it was once celebrated between December 17th and the 23rd OR December 25th through the 31st, depending on the calendar that was used. What we know for sure is it that it was observed around Midwinter a.k.a. the Winter Solstice. Saturnalia was evocative of modern Christmas celebrations in that everyone in ancient Rome had off of work and participated in the excitement.
Ancient Saturnalia Traditions: Role Reversals, Gag Gifts, Feasting, and Revelry
Saturn, who would come to be associated with Father Time, and his consort Ops (Opis) were both worshiped on Saturnalia. Offerings and sacrifices were made to both the god and his goddess in hopes of protecting the Winter-sown crops. Author Judika Illes takes note of the similarities in appearance between the god Saturn and Saint Nick, both being depicted as older gentlemen with white beards. The statue of Saturn’s feet, typically bound the rest of the year, were freed from their bindings during the festival. This symbolized the freedom and liberation of the gods, people, and earth.
An interesting Saturnalia tradition from ancient Rome consisted of allowing people to revel in a role reversal of sorts. The social norms on Saturnalia were lifted. For example, slaves were able to be the masters and masters turned into the slaves. Women could switch roles with the men and vice versa. Much revelry was to be had at the ancient Saturnalia Festivals. And what revelry would be complete without drinking and feasting? Sources say traditional foods included roast boar, cakes, walnuts, honey, grapes, fermented fish, figs, apples and of course, wine.
In addition to the role reversals, large parties were had that involved orgies, fertility rites, gambling, and games of many kinds. According to Illes, cross-dressing was a common tradition and enlivened the atmosphere. Gift-giving, still common during the Winter today, was incredibly prominent in ancient Rome as a Saturnalia tradition. But more specifically gifts were given to children and gag gifts between friends. The gag gifts were called sigillaria and were typically wax dolls and figurines made to resemble gods, mythical heroes, and even grotesque monsters. These were typically sold during a Saturnalia market traditionally held during the holidays.
Saturnalia Magical Correspondences
|Boar (pork)||Spruce||Decorated tree||Gifts|
|Apples||Bay laurel||Gilded ornaments||Feasting|
|Olive oil||Cinnamon||Suns and sun faces||Offerings|
The Gods and Spirits of Saturnalia
Like their Northern European neighbors, the ancient Romans believed the spirits and gods were active during the Winter season and holidays like Saturnalia. But a few gods were particularly present and powerful at this time for other reasons. Where Northern Europeans were stocking away food and slaughtering livestock to survive the harsh winter, their Southern counterparts like the Romans were sowing seeds during the Winter. You have to remember, the climate of Italy is much different than that of Norway, for instance. Still, the themes of god/goddess worship, prosperity, feasting and gathering together were common throughout the continent and the world at Midwinter.
Saturn: God of Plenty
Saturn, also called Father Time and Seed-Sower, is the Roman god of agriculture, prosperity, time and fertility. In one of the myths, Saturn is a haggard wanderer who eventually is given the job of door guardian guarding Rome’s immense wealth. An important job indeed. His name is derived from saeta which means seed and he is associated with the legendary Golden Age of Plenty, of which is commemorated at Saturnalia.
There’s some speculation whether Saturn was the pagan precursor of the Saint Nicholas, the saint who wandered and gave gifts to the needy and worked miracles. His Greek counterpart is Kronos, who also has a festival around Midwinter. But it wasn’t all fun and games with Saturn. Some sources claim human sacrifices were made to appease the god of plenty, particularly in Northern Africa after it had been annexed by Rome.
Ops (Opis): Goddess of Peace and Prosperity
December 19th is Opalia, the feast day of Saturn’s consort named Ops (or Opis). Ops is the goddess of peace, plenty, and protection. She specifically is invoked to guard one’s home against fires and to extinguish fires that have gone out of control. Interestingly, her name influenced the word opulence, which means great wealth or luxuriousness. Ops has also been associated with the Greek goddesses Rhea and Cybele, both Great Earth Mothers.
The King of Saturnalia
When I first heard of the King of Saturnalia, I immediately thought of the Lord of Misrule from English tradition. Upon further research, I learned this lively character is actually based on the King of Saturnalia. Rome did occupy England at one point, and people travel, right? Anyway, the King of Saturnalia was a man chosen in each household to represent the leader of Saturnalia or Lord of Misrule. The King of Saturnalia would then cause mischief or misrule in the household and more specifically at parties and feasts – playing pranks, telling jokes, chasing the women, etc. I consider this character a “spirit” of the season as it’s almost like the individual chosen has to take on a “spirit” in order to bring about a sense of misrule in the house.
How to Celebrate Saturnalia Today
Whether you choose to weave Saturnalia traditions into your Winter holidays OR full-on embrace the ancient Roman festival, there are many festive ways to do so. We offer a few recommendations here but let your family’s traditions and preferences guide your Saturnalia celebrations every year.
“You shall not perform the wicked celebration of the Calends and observe the holiday of the Gentiles, nor shall you decorate your houses with laurel and green branches.“Bishop Martin of Braga, 575AD
1. Decorate with Evergreens
So we know from documented evidence that a popular Saturnalia tradition consisted of the Romans decorating their homes, temples, and streets with evergreen foliage including bay laurel (as mentioned by Bishop Martin above). Purchase or make your own evergreen garland, wreaths, and centerpieces. There’s even ways to weave bay laurel leaves into your wreaths and Saturnalia decorations to be as traditional as possible. Plus, bay laurel just smells amazing.
2. Carry On the Saturnalia Tree Tradition
This would should be an easy one – if you’ve already been setting up a Christmas tree every year, continue to do so in the name of Saturnalia. If you’d like to go traditional, switch out your old tree ornaments for new ones that evoke Saturnalia vibes – natural garland made of orange slices and cinnamon sticks, bunches of dried flowers, berries, and herbs. Even small glass bowls that you can stuff with items of your choice are all great options for your Saturnalia tree.
3. Purification Rituals
Purification is a big theme for the Saturnalia Festival today and in centuries past. We recommend decluttering the house, physically cleaning it, then performing your household purification ritual of choice. The asperging ritual is as simple as dipping a sprig or bundle of fresh herbs into moon water, blessed water, or a purifying herbal infusion. Then sprinkling the water around your home to remove negative energy that’s collected over the past year. A traditional Roman purification ritual called Lustratio might have also been performed…
4. Saturnalia Feasting
Lustratio, which was a Roman purification ritual that consisted of sacrificing a pig, was likely performed during the Saturnalia Festival. Today, replicate this ritual by cooking a Saturnalia (Christmas) ham and offering the first slice/piece to the gods and ancestors. Then take that ham and have a Saturnalia feast with family and friends. Include traditional Saturnalia foods like figs, apples, grapes, honey, olive oil, bread, wine and cheese.
5. More Saturnalia Decorations
In addition to evergreen boughs, garlands, and wreaths, other Saturnalia decorations might include gilded ornaments. Golden tree ornaments, gilded nuts, and golden suns are perfect to recognize the ancient Saturnalia traditions. You can learn how to gild your own ornaments and then tuck them into the evergreens, use as centerpieces, and much more. Because Winter Solstice is the last day where darkness rules, the sun is almost always used in decorations. This is a type of sympathetic magick encouraging the sun’s return.
6. Honor Saturn
If you’re really going old school style, consider giving offerings to Saturn and Ops and ask them to bless your coming year with prosperity. Pork (in place of roast boar), chicken, fish, and other meats serve as welcome offerings to the gods at Saturnalia. Don’t forget to pour them a little wine, too. If you’d like to represent Saturn at your altar, include a representation of the scythe which is Saturn’s symbol.
7. Give Gifts
Probably one of the most prominent traditions we’ve kept around all these years that stems from Saturnalia celebrations is gift giving. Continue the tradition by giving gifts to those you love during the holidays. If you’d like to go traditional, make wax or wooden figures as sigillaria in the gods’ likenesses. OR gingerbread men!
8. Throw a Big Party
This should go without saying, but if you’ve never had a big blow-out holiday party now’s your chance. Saturnalia was all about feasting, fun, family and parties. So get out the punch bowl, put up a big tree, and invite your loved ones over. Eat, drink, exchange gifts and do all the holiday things.
9. Cake Fortunes
Making cakes for Saturnalia is an ancient custom, and one source claims fava beans were put into a select few. Whomever found the fava beans in their Saturnalia cakes were those selected to be the Kings of Saturnalia. You can carry on this custom or make up your own by putting other charms or foods in the cakes that represent the individual’s coming year. For example, apple and cinnamon = prosperity and health. Bananas = fertility. Etc.
- History: Saturnalia
- Encyclopedia of Spirits by Judika Illes
- Encyclopedia of Witchcraft by Judika Illes
- A History of Pagan Europe