Saturnalia was the Roman holiday marking the winter solstice. It was named after the Roman god Saturn, in his aspect of the god of seed and planting. It was originally celebrated on December 17th, but by the late of the late Republic it was celebrated from December 17th to December 23rd. The Emperor Augustus tried to limit the time of celebration to three days, but it was expanded to five under the Emperor Caligula.
In the Roman calendar, the Saturnalia was designated a holy day, or holiday, on which religious rites were performed. The Temple of Saturn, the oldest temple in Rome, had been dedicated on the Saturnalia, and the woolen bonds which fettered the feet of the ivory cult statue within were loosened on that day to symbolize the liberation of the god.
It also was a festival day. After sacrifice at the temple, there was a public banquet, which Livy says was introduced in 217 BC. Afterwards, the celebrants shouted “Io, Saturnalia!” at a riotous feast in the temple.
The Saturnalia was the most popular holiday of the Roman year. Catullus describes it as “the best of days,” and Seneca complains that the “whole mob has let itself go in pleasures.” Pliny the Younger writes that he retired to his room while the rest of the household celebrated. Cicero fled to the countryside. It was an occasion for celebration, visits to friends, and the presentation of gifts, particularly wax candles, perhaps to signify the returning light after the solstice. Homes were decorated with greenery. Candles and lamps chased away the spirits of darkness.
Aulus Gellius relates in his Attic Nights that he and his Roman compatriots would gather at the baths in Athens, where they were studying, and pose difficult questions to one another on the ancient poets, a crown of laurel being dedicated to Saturn if no-one could answer them.
During the holiday, restrictions were relaxed and the social order inverted. Schools, businesses, and law courts were closed. 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 were permitted, as was the pilleus, 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. Cross-dressing, parties, masquerades, and merriment of all kinds prevailed. 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. 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.
It has been suggested that Christians in the 4th Century assigned December 25th as Christ’s birthday (and hence Christmas) because pagans already observed this day as a holiday. In this way the problem of eliminating an already popular holiday would be sidestepped, thus making the Christianizing of the population easier. It is almost certain that the actual birthday of Christ was not in midwinter, since the gospels speak of shepherds tending their flocks, not something done in the cold in central Judea.
Nevertheless, the holiday, first called the Feast of the Nativity, the spread to Egypt by 432 and to England by the end of the sixth century. By the end of the eighth century, the celebration of Christmas had spread all the way to Scandinavia. Christmas customs of gift giving, of decorating of greenery, and of feasting can be traced back to Roman practices during Saturnalia. These customs were condemned by the Purtitans, who believed that they distracted from the serious, religious aspects of the holiday.
The medieval celebration of the Feast of Fools was another continuation of Saturnalia into the Christian era. Saturnalia is still celebrated today by certain sects of Wiccans or neo pagans.