Saturnalia became one of the most popular Roman festivals. It was marked by tomfoolery and reversal of social roles, in which slaves and masters ostensibly switched places, with humorous results.
Saturnalia was introduced around 217 BC to raise citizen morale after a crushing military defeat. Originally celebrated for a day, on December 17, its popularity saw it grow until it became a week long extravaganza, ending on the 23rd. Efforts to shorten the celebration were unsuccessful. Augustus tried to reduce it to three days, and Caligula to five. These attempts caused for uproars and revolts among the Roman citizens.
Saturnalia involved the conventional sacrifices, a couch (lectisternium) set out in front of the temple of Saturn and the untying of the ropes that bound the statue of Saturn during the rest of the year. A Saturnalicius princeps was elected master of ceremonies for the proceedings. Besides the public rites there were a series of holidays and customs celebrated privately. The celebrations included a school holiday, the making and giving of small presents (saturnalia et sigillaricia) and a special market (sigillaria). Gambling was allowed for all, even slaves; however, although it was officially condoned only during this period, one should not assume that it was rare or much remarked upon during the rest of the year. It was a time to eat, drink, and be merry. The toga was not worn, but rather the synthesis, i.e. colorful, informal “dinner clothes”; and the pileus (freedman’s hat) was worn by everyone.
Slaves were exempt from punishment, and treated their masters with (a pretense of) disrespect. The slaves celebrated a banquet: before, with, or served by the masters. Yet the reversal of the social order was mostly superficial; the banquet, for example, would often be prepared by the slaves, and they would prepare their masters’ dinner as well. It was license within careful boundaries; it reversed the social order without subverting it.
The customary greeting for the occasion is a “Io, Saturnalia!” — Io (pronounced “e-o”) being a Latin interjection related to “ho” (as in “Ho, praise to Saturn”).
A lot has been written since women’s liberation about the performance anxiety men feel in our modern times. Performing sex in front of other people was not the stressful thing in ancient days as it is now. Sex was often done in religious ceremonies in groups–Orgies.
Nowadays the word orgy connotes something depraved and degenerate. That was not the original meaning for the word. The word “orgy” comes from the Greek word “orgia” meaning “secret worship”. Since most secret worship involved sexual rituals, and Christians were opposed to anything sexual the word orgy came to have the debased meaning it has today, rather than the noble, spiritual meaning of the original word.
Many words that are used to describe extreme religious fervor are also used to describe great sex, such as passion, bliss, and ecstasy. There were many orgies throughout the year as celebrations in the religion of the Goddess. Many of these celebrations have been taken over by the Christians who removed their sexual nature. The best known is undoubtedly Christmas taken from the pagan festival of Saturnalia.
Saturn, from whom we get the word for the day of the week, Saturday, was the Roman name for the Greek God, Cronus and the Babylonian God, Ninip. Sometimes called the Lord of Death, he was represented by the sun at its lowest aspect at the winter solstice. That’s when the earth is cold, and most plants are dead, and it was believed that the sun was approaching death.
Today that’s around December 21, but because of calendar changes, it was originally December 25th. Saturnalia celebrated the sun overcoming the power of winter, with hope of spring when life would be renewed. In Roman times, Bacchus, the god of wine, became the lord of these festivals. During the Bacchanalian festivals the everyday rules were turned topsy turvy. The masters waited on the servants. All sexual prohibitions were lifted. It was a time of true good will towards all men. Even dresses were exchanged with men dressing as women. Erotic dances were performed with a large erect phallus being carried around in the dancing processionals.
The custom of exchanging clothes during Saturnalia and Bacchanalia was an activity frowned upon by the Jews and Christians as it is prohibited by the Bible, Deuteronomy 22;5 “The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman’s garment; for all that do so are abomination unto the Lord thy god” So much for Biblical transvestites.
According to The World Book Encyclopedia: “early Christians considered the celebration of anyone’s birth to be a pagan custom.” (Vol. 3, page 416) Rather than commemorating his birth, the only command Jesus gave concerning any sort of commemoration of his life actually had only to do with his death (Luke 22:19). It was not until several hundred years after the death of Jesus Christ that the first instances of the celebration of Christmas begin to appear in the historical record.
According to the new Encyclopedia Britannica, some who later claimed to be Christian likely “wished the date to coincide with the pagan Roman festival marking the ‘birthday of the unconquered sun’.” The festival was celebrated with similar customs (gift giving, feasting) that are done to celebrate Christmas today.