Our Lady of Celestial Fire


December 18

(Roman) Ancient: XVI–X Kal. Jan.
This most joyous of festivals was called “the best of days” (Catullus 14.15); at various times in the past the festivities have lasted three, five or seven days, during which normal business and many prohibitions are suspended. The Saturnalia (which has much in common with the Kronia, c. Jul. 30) is preceded by the Festival for Tellus and the Consualia and is followed by the Opalia, Angeronalia (Dec. 21), Larentalia and Festival for Sol Invictus, resulting in a holiday season lasting from Dec. 13 to Dec. 25 (the ancient Winter Solstice).

The festival begins with a formal sacrifice at the temple of Saturn (whose name was derived from satus = sowing), which is conducted Graeco ritu (by Greek rite), that is, with uncovered head. First the woolen bonds are untied from the statue of Saturn. Next there is a festive banquet at which people dress informally, wearing the synthesis (perhaps a light dressing-gown) and pilei (soft caps), which may be made out of paper (Guhl & Koner 481). At the end of the banquet everyone shouts, “Io Saturnalia!”

At home it is a period of general relaxation, and in ancient times, the master waited on the servants at meal times. The household chooses the Saturnalicius Princeps (Master of the Saturnalia), the “Lord of Misrule,” who is free to order others to do his bidding. On the last day it is common to exchange small gifts, such as sigillaria (small pottery dolls) for the children and cerei (candles) for adults.

Of the Saturnalia, Statius said, “Time shall not destroy that Holy Day, so long as the hills of Latium endure and Father Tiber, while your city of Roma and the Capitol remain”—and indeed it has not been destroyed, only disguised. [OCD s.vv. Saturnus, sigillaria; SFR 205–7]