A very old pagan Roman festival, probably of agrarian origin. Its beginnings are obscure. Macrobius (Saturn. 1.7) notes that various explanations were given. He states that it was celebrated originally on December 17, but in his time lasted for seven days, December 17–23. On the 17th a sacrifice was offered to Saturn in the Forum. The next few days were marked by festivities—gifts, feasting, and license for the slaves, who were served by their masters. The custom of drawing lots for a king of the feast is mentioned by Tacitus (Ann. 13.15.2) and is found also in the Acts of St. Dasius. Dasius, a Roman soldier elected to be king of the Saturnalia, refused because he was a Christian. He was put to death on November 20, 303 [cf. F. Cumont, "The Acts of St. Dasius," Analecta Bollandiana 16 (1897) 5–16]. This recital, the gist of which appears authentic, gives some hitherto unknown details on the celebration of the Saturnalia by the Roman army outside Rome (in this case at Durostonum in Maesia), but it contains a serious error in saying that the king must finally be offered in sacrifice.
St. Epiphanius (Adv. haer. 51.22:5) confuses the Saturnalia with the festival of the winter solstice: "This day [of the solstice] called Saturnalia among the Romans, Kronia among the Egyptians, and Kikellia among the Alexandrians, was celebrated by the Greeks [i.e., the idol worshippers] on the 8th day before the calends of January" (December 25). He was mistaken on the date, for the Saturnalia ended December 23. Since celebrations of the Natalis invicti began on the night of December 24–25, Epiphanius thought that they were concerned with the one festival. However, the Saturnalia had nothing to do with the solstice festival, nor with the cult of the sun. Accordingly, the Saturnalia had no influence on the institution of the feast of Christmas.
An attempt was made to connect the practice of choosing a king at the feast of the Epiphany with what was done in the case of the Saturnalia. But this custom was of Greek origin and did not properly belong to the Roman festival.
Bibliography: h. j. rose, The Oxford Classical Dictionary, ed. m. cary (Oxford 1949). 797. w. h. roscher, ed., Ausfürliches Lexikon der griechischen und röischen Mythologie, 6 v. (Leipzig 1884–1937) 4:427–444. m. nilsson, Paulys Realenzyklopädie der klassischen Altertumswissenschaft, ed. g. wissowa, et al. 2A.1 (Stuttgart 1921) 201–211.
Sat·ur·na·li·a / ˌsatərˈnālēə; -nālyə/ • n. [treated as sing. or pl.] the ancient Roman festival of Saturn in December, which was a period of general merrymaking and was the predecessor of Christmas. ∎ (saturnalia) an occasion of wild revelry.DERIVATIVES: sat·ur·na·li·an adj.