In our Gregorian calendar, Saturnalia
coincides with the Winter Solstice, a cosmic event of mystery and suspense.
In the Julian calendar used by the Romans, the Winter Solstice or Brumalia occured
on Dec 25th. Humans have gathered together during these black nights to give
solace and comfort to one another since prehistoric times. As the world grew
cold and grey, it was once feared that the sun was approaching the end of its
life. Sacrifices were often made to placate the gods and to ensure that great
light of the heavens would be reborn. Although it is not a solar holiday, Saturnalia
echoes some of the these practices.
Many Saturnalia traditions are survived
in our 21st century winter celebrations. For example, the Romans decorated their
homes and communities with glowing candles, greenery swags and wreaths of holly,
cypress and laurel, much as we do today. They held huge public banquets for
all the people of Rome, not unlike the many charities that open their doors
during our winter holiday season. The Roman also exchanged personal gifts and
greetings of good will at this time. This is just a short list of the many similarities
in the traditions of ancient Saturnalia and our modern Christmas and New Years
Saturnalia is celebrated around the winter
solstice. The festival harks back to the Golden Age of Man when Saturn ruled;
then all men were equal, there was no work, and everyone enjoyed peace and happiness.
So Saturnalia the festival is a time of celebration, visits to friends, and
the giving of gifts such as candles and small clay figures. The poet Martial
in Epigrams Book 14 lists various presents, some expensive, some very cheap.
For example: writing tablets, dice, knuckle bones, moneyboxes, combs, toothpicks,
a hat, a hunting knife, an axe, various lamps, balls, perfumes, pipes, a pig,
a sausage, a parrot, tables, cups, spoons, items of clothing, statues, masks,
books, and pets.
Activities and attractions include musical
performers, storytelling for children, a hayride tour of the neighborhood’s
holiday lighting, masked reveling, hot chocolate and hot apple cider, toasted
marshmallows and ‘smores, roasted chestnuts, and a visit from Santa Claus.
Neighbors are invited to decorate their houses and gardens with lights to celebrate
this event. Saturnalia brightens the darkest time of the year and offers an
alternative to events such as Hanukkah, Winter Solstice, Christmas, and Kwanzaa.