Saturnalia is an Ancient Roman festival that was held in honor of the god Saturn.
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, much like the Lord of Misrule in later Christian celebrations.
Saturnalia was introduced around 217 BCE to raise citizen morale after a crushing military defeat at the hands of the Carthaginians. 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 uproar and massive 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.
Saturnalia 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").
Seneca the Younger wrote about Rome during Saturnalia around 50 CE (Sen. epist. 18,1-2):
It is now the month of December, when the greatest part of the city is in a bustle. Loose reins are given to public dissipation; everywhere you may hear the sound of great preparations, as if there were some real difference between the days devoted to Saturn and those for transacting business... Were you here, I would willingly confer with you as to the plan of our conduct; whether we should eve in our usual way, or, to avoid singularity, both take a better supper and throw off the toga.
Horace in his Satire II.7 (published circa 30 BCE) uses a setting of the Saturnalia for a frank exchange between a slave and his master in which the slave criticizes his master for being himself enslaved to his passions. Martial Epigrams Book 14 (circa CE 84 or 85) is a series of poems each based on likely saturnalia gifts, some expensive, some very cheap. For example: writing tablets, dice, knuckle bones, moneyboxes, combs, toothpicks, a hat, a hunting knife, an axe, various lamps, balls, perfumes, pipes, a pig, a sausage, a parrot, tables, cups, spoons, items of clothing, statues, masks, books, and pets. Pliny in Epistles 2.17.24 (early second century AD) describes a secluded suite of rooms in his Laurentine villa which he uses as a retreat:
...especially during the Saturnalia when the rest of the house is noisy with the licence of the holiday and festive cries. This way I don't hamper the games of my people and they don't hinder my work or studies.'
Macrobius in Saturnalia I.24.23-23 wrote:
Meanwhile the head of the slave household, whose responsibility it was to offer sacrifice to the Penates, to manage the provisions and to direct the activities of the domestic servants, came to tell his master that the household had feasted according to the annual ritual custom. For at this festival, in houses that keep to proper religious usage, they first of all honor the slaves with a dinner prepared as if for the master; and only afterwards is the table set again for the head of the household. So, then, the chief slave came in to announce the time of dinner and to summon the masters to the table.
The poet Catullus describes Saturnalia as the best of days (Cat. 14.15). It was a time of celebration, visits to friends, and gift-giving, particularly of wax candles (cerei), and earthenware figurines (sigillaria).
To grasp the significance of the holiday, it is important to realise that the status of "slave" in the ancient Empire was very different from the status accorded to slaves later in Europe and the United States. Household slaves did not have legal rights per se, but were accorded an individual distinction that was later not to be afforded them. Slaves were considered indispensable members of any household and a wealthy Roman woman (for example) would spend many hours a week intimately concerned with their welfare and difficulties.
The Mishna and Talmud (Avodah Zara 8a) describe a pagan festival called Saturna which occurs 8 days before the winter solstice. It is followed 8 days after the solstice with a festival called Kalenda. The Talmud ascribes the origins of this festival to Adam, who saw that the days were getting shorter and thought it was punishment for his sin. He was afraid that the world was returning to the chaos and emptiness that existed before creation. He sat and fasted for 8 days. Once he saw that the days were getting longer again he realized that this was the natural cycle of the world, so made 8 days of celebration. The Talmud states that this festival was later turned into a pagan festival.