Saturnalia and the Origin of Christmas

We celebrated Saturnalia on New Year’s Eve!


Saturnalia is a Roman holiday where celebrators make sacrifices at the Temple of Saturn,

temple of saturn reconstruction

feast at public banquets, and party continuously with a “carnival atmosphere that overturned Roman social norms”. A King of Saturnalia was elected and he would issue nonsense commands that everyone would have to follow. Gambling was permitted and masters were supposed to serve their slaves for a day (although the meal was probably cooked by slaves – so this is about as genuine as corporate philanthropy).

Fun Facts:

  • Takes place Dec 17th – 23rd
  • Say ‘io Saturnalia!’ (pronounced Yo Saturnalia! like you’re catcalling Saturnalia down a dark back alley) to wish people a merry Saturnalia
  • Stopped being celebrated in 3rd century AD as it was absorbed into Christian practices

Unfortunately (or fortunately?), we didn’t have any slaves to switch roles with (although I certainly felt like a slave after doing all the dishes later that night). However, Saturnalia has other traditions that we followed, like lighting lots of candles (since Saturnalia is a festival of light before the winter solstice) and bringing greenery into the house.

Many of Saturnalia’s practices actually resemble Christmas’, such as

  • giving gifts with verses, similar to today’s Christmas cards. Cheap gag gifts were encouraged (otherwise known as stocking stuffers)
  • overeating at the public feast (food usually included roasting a suckling pig)
  • decorating greenery already in the house, like trees – which evolved into the modern day Christmas tree

We took it as an excuse to wear togas (historically inaccurate – Saturnalia was actually a time to don gaudy party clothes instead of the simplistic toga meant for daywear)


and eat grapes while reclining on a sofa (also historically inaccurate – the grapes are genetically modified and not organic.)


Columella Salad

You have to have a feast for the Roman holiday! Our feast mostly consisted of modern food and bruschetta, but I made columella salad from the Apicius cookbook (“De re coquinaria”).

Columella Salad.jpg

The Apicius cookbook was compiled in late 4th century AD. The manuscript is written in Vulgar Latin (as in commoners’ Latin vs. Classical Latin), but most of its recipes are geared towards rich people as they contain some exotic ingredients (like flamingo and ostrich eggs).

The salad was mostly made of modern day garnishes (mint, cilantro, parsley) and I personally was not a fan of it, but the other people ate a lot of it. Out of obligation or taste? You decide.

Verdict: I rate it 2.5 fake Christmas trees out of 5.

christmas tree rating

Time: 30 min
Serves: 4 – 6


100g fresh mint
50g fresh cilantro
50g fresh parsley
1 small leek
1 sprig of fresh thyme
200g pecorino romano cheese
1 tbsp red wine vinegar
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
Pepper as needed

Let’s Make This!

  1. Wash and pick the leaves off the mint, cilantro, and parsley. Roughly chop the leaves into bite size pieces. Slice the white part of the small leek thinly. Mince the thyme leaves.
  2. Grate the cheese over the greens. Put it all in a mortar and pestle to grind slightly. Otherwise, chop roughly in a food processor.
  3. Make the vinaigarette by mixing the vinegar, oil and pepper. Adjust according to taste. Season on top.

Sources: Apicius Cookbook; Around the Roman Table by Patrick Faas

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