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Religio Romana

Saturnalia, the Roman festival of light, was the most popular festival in ancient Rome. This was an official Roman celebration honouring Saturn in his aspect as God of Seed and Planting. As an official festival, no business was allowed. It was seen by many citizens and slaves as a week of sanctioned party time.

At this time of year, during the Winter Solstice, the sun has descended to its southern limit and daylight hours are at their lowest of the year. During the night of the Winter Solstice, the last night of Saturnalia (December 25th on the old Julian calendar), everyone went outdoors and lit their candles to light the city. Many went to the Forum Romanum (the central plaza of the city). With so many thousands of people with lit candles, the sight in the Forum and nearby hills (of the Seven Hills of Rome) must have been incredibly breathtaking. Awe-inspiring views could be seen with all the temples and builings bathed in light. Saturnalia was sometimes refered as the festival of lights for this reason. But also, the festival celebrated the return of longer daylight hours as days slowly became longer.

The home would be decorated inside with evergreens and mistletoe. A tree, usually already growing in the peristylium (a colonnaded garden open to the sky located in the centre of the house) would be decorated. On this holiday here was little formality as normal social restrictions were relaxed and things became topsy-turvy. Slaves were treated as equals. They could wear their master's clothing, and during the feast they were often waited-on by their master and his family as a remembrance of the god's golden age.

In the evening of December 17 at the Temple of Sarturn, a bull would be sacrificed to insure a bountiful harvest in the coming year. After the sacrifice or after prayers in the home, the exhortation Io, Saturnalia would be declared by all as a salutation and a signal to start serious partying in honour of the god. A public banquet honouring the god was held followed by a Lectisternium, or a purification ritual. The statue of Saturn would be removed from the temple so the image of the god could be in attendance.

Within the family, a Lord of Misrule was appointed and special holiday songs sung. It is still a custom in some British households to select a Lord of Misrule as part of Christmas celebrations. Mischievous pranks and jokes were common, feasting, drinking, and especially procreation were endemic to the festival.

During the days after the temple sacrifice to the solstice on the 25th, it was also a time of pleasure and celebration, a time to visit friends and family, and of the giving of small gifts, especially wax candles, a luxury in ancient Rome. Since it was illegal for doctors and lawyers to charge for their services, substantial gifts of silver, gold, and even property might be given by the rich to demonstrate their appreciation and gratitude.


Saturnalia is a time of rest, feasting, and enjoyment. You can get a tree on the 17th and decorate it. Small gifts can be exchanged. Treat each night as something special with good food, good drink, special treats, wear your best informal clothes, and do things you enjoy.

Make Saturnalia special.

Io, Saturnalia

The four elements and four directions.

Moon through the trees.



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