Religious festivals in ancient Rome were an extremely important part of life. The Roman calendar simply abounds with festivals. Feriae (“holidays” in the sense of “holy days”; singular also feriae or dies ferialis) were either public (publicae) or private ( privatae). State holidays were celebrated by the Roman people and received public funding. Although games (ludi) were not technically feriae, when games were held, they were celebrated as days off work (dies festi).
Marcus Terentius Varro, a prolific author, who was known as the most ‘learned of all Romans’ and who was quoted by Circero, Virgil and others, wrote that feriae were “days instituted for the sake of the gods.” Because religious rites were performed on the feriae, public business was suspended. Everyone, including slaves, were not supposed to work, but were to be given some form of rest. Cicero wrote that people who were free should not engage in lawsuits and quarrels, and slaves should get a break from their labors. Exceptions for essential occupations were made, for example some jobs on a farm might still need to be performed. Some agricultural tasks not otherwise permitted could be carried out if an expiation were made in advance. Another example included work considered vital either to the gods or preserving human life was excusable. Within the city of Rome, certain priests and the flamens were not even allowed to see work done. However, the pragmatic Romans allowed those who “inadvertently” worked to pay a fine or offer up a sacrifice, piaculum, usually a pig.
One of the most joyous of all of the festivals was the Saturnalia. This was festival in honor of the god Saturn. It was originally held on the 17th of December, but later on days were added until it was celebrated for a week, ending on December 23rd or the 24th. It did not include the day of December 25th, more about which is covered later in this article. The holiday was celebrated with a sacrifice at the Temple of Saturn. There was a public banquet, followed by private gift-giving, continual partying, and a carnival atmosphere that overturned the conservative Roman social norms. For example, as with Sacaea, masters provided table service for their slaves. The poet, Catullus, called the festival “the best of days.” The Roman celebration would include masquerades in the streets, magnificent festive banquets, visiting with friends and the exchange of good-luck gifts known as Strenae, that is “lucky fruits.” Finally, Roman halls would be decked with garlands of laurel and green trees, adorned with lighted candles.
Saturn (Saturnus) was the god of sowing seeds. Even though Saturn was an agricultural deity, he ruled over the world in the Golden Age, when humans enjoyed the bounty of the earth without labor. The revelries of the Saturnalia were supposed to reflect the conditions of the lost mythical age. The statue of Saturn at is main temple normally had its feet bound in wool, which was removed for the holiday as an act of liberation. The Romans would celebrate the festival with cries of “Jo Saturnalia!” (also translated as “Io Saturnalia”). The interjection “io” is pronounced either as two syllables (a short i and a long o) or as a single syllable (with the i becoming the Latin consonant j and pronounced yō).
The remains of Saturn’s temple at Rome, eight columns of the pronaos (porch), still dominate today the west end of the Roman Forum. The temple goes back to the earliest records of the republic (6th century bc). It was restored by Lucius Munatius Plancus in 42 BC and, after a fire, in the 4th century AD. It served as the treasury (aerarium Saturni) of the Roman state.
Although probably the best-known Roman holiday, Saturnalia as a whole is not described from beginning to end in any single ancient source. Modern understanding of the festival has been pieced together from several accounts. The Saturnalia was the dramatic setting of the multivolume work of that name by Macrobius, a Latin writer from late antiquity who is the major source for information about the holiday. In one of the interpretations in Macrobius’s work, Saturnalia is a festival of light leading to the winter solstice, with the abundant presence of candles symbolizing the quest for knowledge and truth. The Saturnalia is not to be confused with the festival of the renewal of light and the coming of the new year, which was celebrated in the later Roman Empire at the Dies Natalis of Sol Invictus, the “Birthday of the Unconquerable Sun,” on December 25.
The popularity of Saturnalia continued into the third and fourth centuries AD, and as the Roman Empire came under Christian rule, some of its customs probably have influenced the seasonal celebrations surrounding Christmas and the New Year.