December 17 marks the beginning of the Roman holiday of Saturnalia, which runs through December 23. Saturnalia was observed in veneration of the god Saturn at the onset of Winter Solstice. Historical accounts describe festivals fraught with indulgence and licentiousness alongside displays of freedom and egalitarianism. Poet Catullus lauded the holiday as the “best of days.” Lyricist Horace referred to it as “December liberty.”
In the initial ceremonies, priests removed the wool binding the feet of the statue of Saturn in Rome, symbolizing freedom and a return to the “Golden Age” of Saturn. Slaves received a banquet and were allowed to criticize their masters. Gambling was permitted. The only restraints were placed on government: schools and courts were closed, and war could not be declared.
Numerous customs surrounded the festival. Masks were worn in celebration of anonymity. Gift-giving (often gag gifts), which normally occurred on December 19 (Sigillaria), preceded the modern custom of gift-giving on Christmas.
Like Christmas, Saturnalia was largely secular with an underlying message of divinity. According to the philosopher Porphyry, the festival’s themes represented the “freeing of souls into immortality.”
The Saturnalian, which hopes to revive the spirit of Saturnalia year round, asks its readers to take special note of the holiday.