Remembering Saturnalia, The Badass Ancient Roman Precursor To Christmas

Hayley Milliman


Content Lead

Saturnalia, the ancient Roman precursor to Christmas, was basically like the best holiday party you’ve ever been to, times a million. It was actually kind of similar to the Purge, except instead of everyone going nuts and murdering each other, they abandoned social order to drink and make merry.

While we don’t celebrate Christmas with wine-induced orgies (at least at my house), we have carried over a lot of Saturnalia’s traditions into modern day.

I don’t know about you, but this painting of Saturnalia looks infinitely more fun than my family’s Christmas party.

The Roman poet Catullus described Saturnalia as “the best of times” – he didn’t even have to offer a caveat, like the Christmas-obsessed Charles Dickens did in his novel Great Expectations. Saturnalia was just straight-up awesome.

Let’s take a look at five facts about the badass ancient Roman precursor to Christmas, Saturnalia.

#1: Work Stopped For A Whole Week

Saturnalia came from humble beginnings.

It started as a farming ritual, where farmers would offer gifts and sacrifices to the gods in celebration of the winter solstice and the winter planting season. Those early rituals morphed into a holiday with a real name, Saturnalia, which honored Saturn, the Roman god of agriculture, who, like all benevolent deities, demanded his worshippers honor him with slaughtered lambs and gifts.

Initially, Saturnalia celebrations were just one day long. But, as more and more people started to celebrate, the holiday grew and grew until it became a weeklong festival by the time of the late Roman Republic.

There isn’t a concrete explanation for why Saturnalia grew from one day to one week, but we’d like to think it was because people simply realized that a party that lasts a whole week is at least seven times more awesome than a party that lasts for one day.

Nobody worked during Saturnalia; courts and schools were closed, business dealings came to a halt. People spent their time gambling, feasting, hanging out, and giving super cool gifts.

Try telling your boss you celebrate Saturnalia this year – maybe you’ll get a whole week off, instead of just a day or two for Christmas. Just remember – it’s not our fault if your boss looks at you like you’re crazy.

#2: Saturnalia Was Basically The OG Boxing Day

Another December holiday, Boxing Day, can trace its roots to Saturnalia.

For those of you who aren’t from the UK and didn’t look it up after reading about it in Harry Potter, Boxing Day is the holiday celebrated the day after Christmas Day. Traditionally, on Boxing Day, servants received Christmas presents or a service from their masters.

Similarly, during Saturnalia, all social rules went out the window. Slaves got the chance to participate in the festivities and even received gifts from their masters or sat at the head of the dinner table while their masters served them.

Unlike other Roman holidays, which were mainly celebrated by the upper classes, Saturnalia was truly for everyone.

#3: Each Household Elected A Head “Mischief Maker” For The Week

The best part of Saturnalia is that many households would choose a mock king who got to lord it over the rest of the house for the week. Called the Saturnalicius princeps (the “leader of Saturnalia” or “Lord of Misrule”), this person’s sole job was to make mischief during the week (aka, the best job ever).

A good Saturnalicius princeps would do the following:

  • Insult guests!
  • Wear crazy clothing!
  • Chase people around the house!
  • Plan scandalous party entertainment!

The Saturnalicius princeps was chosen by fate: a small coin would be hidden in a cake served at the beginning of the festivities. Whoever found the object in his cake would become the king of Saturnalia (and potentially lose a tooth in the process).

If you’re from New Orleans (or have just spent a lot of time on Bourbon Street), this might sound familiar. The tradition of hiding coins in pastries would eventually evolve into the (kind of weird) Mardi Gras custom of hiding tiny baby figurines inside king cakes.

#4: Saturnalia Feasts Were Out Of Control

Think of the most out-of-control holiday party you’ve ever been to, and then multiply that by ten.

You might just approach the level of epic-ness that happened at Saturnalia.

Saturnalia was seven straight days of debauchery. Like we mentioned earlier, each household had the Saturnalicius princeps to create chaos inside the home. Then, there were public feasts and celebrations that everyone could attend. People would stay out late into the night, drinking and partying with their friends.

According to legend, the Roman author (and notorious buzzkill) Pliny had to build a soundproof wall in his house just so he could keep working during Saturnalia.

We suspect he was probably just jealous he didn’t get invited to any of the best parties.

#5: Santa Got His Catchphrase From Saturnalia

The traditional greeting on Saturnalia was “Io Saturnalia!” People would run through the streets calling “Io, Io, Io!”

Our favorite (unproven) theory suggests that Mr. Claus himself started saying “Ho, ho, ho” based on this ancient Roman greeting.

From Lord Of Misrule To Yuletide Carols

Eventually, in 312 AD, the Roman Emperor Constantine (the first Christian emperor) started the shift from Saturnalia to Christmas.

Slowly but surely, the Romans and their successors replaced Saturn with Jesus, a week of debauchery with a day of prayers, and booze with eggnog, until we arrived at the modern celebration of Christmas as we know it today.

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