Saturnalia, held in mid-December, was an ancient Roman pagan festival honoring the agricultural god Saturn.
Saturnalia celebrations are the source of many of the traditions we now associate with Christmas.
Saturnalia is the most popular holiday on the ancient Roman calendar, derived from older farming-related rituals of midwinter and the winter solstice, especially the practice of offering gifts or sacrifices to the gods during the winter sowing season.
The pagan celebration of Saturn, the Roman god of agriculture and time, began on a single day. Still, by the late Republic (133-31 B.C.), it had expanded to a weeklong festival beginning December 17. (On the Julian calendar, which the Romans used at the time, the winter solstice fell on December 25.)
During Saturnalia, work and business came to a halt. Schools and courts of law closed, and the normal social patterns were suspended.
People decorated their homes with wreaths and other greenery and shed their traditional togas in favor of colorful clothes known as synthesis. Even slaves did not have to work during Saturnalia but were allowed to participate in the festivities; in some cases, they sat at the head of the table while their masters served them.
Instead of working, Romans spent Saturnalia gambling, singing, playing music, feasting, socializing, and giving each other gifts. Wax taper candles called cerei were common gifts during Saturnalia to signify light returning after the solstice.
On the last day of Saturnalia celebrations, known as the Sigillaria, many Romans gave their friends and loved ones small terracotta figurines known as signillaria, which may have referred back to older celebrations involving human sacrifice.
Saturnalia was by far the jolliest Roman holiday; the Roman poet Catullus famously described it as "the best of times." So riotous were the festivities that the Roman author Pliny reportedly built a soundproof room so that he could work during the raucous celebrations.
Constructed in the fourth century A.D. to replace an earlier temple, the Temple of Saturn in Rome served as the ceremonial center of later Saturnalia celebrations. On the first day of the festivities, a young pig would often be publicly sacrificed at the temple located in the northwest corner of the Roman Forum.
The cult statue of Saturn in the temple traditionally had woolen bonds tied around his feet, but during Saturnalia, these bonds were loosened to symbolize the god's liberation.
A mock king was chosen in many Roman households: the Saturnalicius princeps, or "leader of Saturnalia," sometimes also called the "Lord of Misrule." Usually a lowlier member of the household, this figure was responsible for making mischief during the celebrations insulting guests, wearing crazy clothing, chasing women and girls, etc.