The winter solstice is 25 December in the ancient Roman astronomical calendar, but 21 December in the modern calendar. December is under the protection of Vesta, and the Greek month Poseideôn (mid-Dec.-mid-Jan.) is under the protection of Poseidon.
This is a time of rest and celebration after the last sowing, and so agricultural deities, such as Saturn, Ops and Consus, are especially honored. Generally speaking, Graeco-Roman festivals of this season are more concerned with raising human spirits and reviving the crops than with the return of the sun. [PFA 97, 103; SFR 199, 205, 209, 212]
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]
A Neo-Pagan Saturnalia Ritual is available.
This festival for Dionysos, which is called the Country Dionysia (ta Kat' Agrous Dionusia) or Small Dionysia (ta Mikra Dionusia), is not celebrated on any fixed date, but at a time determined by each village. Everyone participates (including, in ancient times, slaves), and in this regard it is like the Saturnalia.
According to Plutarch (3.527D), there is a procession comprising the carriers of a jar of wine and a vine, someone leading a he-goat, next the Kanêphoros (Basket-bearer) carrying a basket of raisins, then the carriers of an erect, wooden phallus-pole, decorated with ivy and fillets, and finally the singer of the Phallikon (Phallic Song), which is addressed to "Phalês" (see Aristophanes' Acharnians, 247ff, for a comic portrayal), although the procession may be more elaborate.
On Askôlia, the second day of the festival, there is the Askôliasmos, a contest to see who can balance longest on top of a greased, inflated wine-skin (askos). Askôliazô may refer to standing on one leg, because there are many other one-legged contests at the festival (e.g., one-legged races, one-legged tag with the raised leg, one-legged hopping endurance). There may also be dramatic contests; indeed Aristotle claimed (Poet. 1449a) that comedy was born in the Country Dionysia. [PFA 100-2; SFA 101-2]
See also the Dionysian Meditation on the Rural Dionysia.
Most likely the Halôa is a celebration of the pruning of the vines and the tasting of the wine after its first fermentation, or it may be to encourage the growth of corn from the seed. It is named after the halôs (the circular threshing-floor) and is in honor of Demeter and Dionysos.
In the earliest times the first part of the festival was restricted to married women, but after the fourth century BCE to hetairai (courtesans). The Eleusinian Arkhontes (Magistrates) prepare a banquet comprising many foods, including phallus- and pudenda-shaped cakes, but not those foods forbidden in the Mysteries (pomegranates, apples, eggs, fowls, some fish).
The Arkhontes then leave, permitting the women to eat, to drink much wine, and to celebrate licentiously. Carrying clay models of phalli and pudenda, they dance on the halôs around one or more giant phalli, and engage in ritual obscenity. The women may carry on their heads kernoi (offering dishes) containing incense, grains or other offerings. Offerings may be sprinkled on the phalli, around the bases of which are corn leaves. Some women, including the Priestesses, encourage the other women to take secret lovers.
Afterwards men are admitted and a joyful kômos (revel) begins, which develops into an all-night orgy. A Priest and Priestess, with torches representing Demeter and Persephone, sit on chests and preside over the fertility celebration. [NFR 32; PFA 98-9; SFA 35-7]
A festival in honor of Tellus, the most ancient Earth Goddess, and perhaps also in honor of Ceres. [SFR 204-5]
These festivals are essentially the same as the summer Consualia and Opiconsivia (Aug. 21 & 25, q.v.). We see here a pattern: a festival for Consus (God of the Storage-bin) followed in four days by a festival for Ops (Goddess of Plenty). Between these, there was, in the summer on Aug. 23, another festival for Ops (the wife of Saturn) corresponding to the Saturnalia on Dec. 17. [SFR 177-81, 205]
For a Neo-Pagan version, see the Saturnalia Ritual.
Iuventas is the Goddess of Youth, analogous to Greek Hebe. A celebration is held for all the youth who have come of age (14 years old) in the preceding year. [SFR 208]
The month of Poseideôn was dedicated to Poseidon and the eighth day was especially sacred to him (as was the seventh to Apollo and the sixth to Artemis). (In general the summer months are assigned to Apollo and the winter months to other Gods, since that is when He is in Hyperborea and Dionysos takes His place at Delphi.) Poseidon's name seems to mean "Lord of the Earth" or "Husband of Earth," which reminds us of Saturn, husband of Rhea (Doric Poteidon = Potei-Dan = Lord of Earth, as his sometime wife Dêmêtêr = Dê-Mêtêr = Gê-Mêtêr = Earth-Mother). [OCD s.v. Poseidon; PFA 97-8]
This festival honors Acca Larentia. Acca is an obscure Latin word: in Greek akkô means a "ridiculous woman" or "bogey"; in Sanskrit akka means "mother." Therefore Acca Larentia seems to be the Mater Larum (Mother of the Lares), who is also called Lara, Larunda, Larentina and Mania. Indeed Larentia was said to be the wife of the shepherd Faustulus (perhaps = Faunus), who found Romulus and Remus (who became the Lares of Rome) when they were being suckled by the she-wolf, and that Larentia became their foster-mother. Others say that Larentia herself was the she-wolf (lupa), and that's why she is celebrated as a prostitute (lupa). In any case, in this festival She is given parental rites (Parentalia) as the mother of the divine ancestors. [LSJ s.v. akko; SFR 210-2]
The cult of Sol Invictus (Unconquered Sun) was a comparatively late (3rd cent. CE) arrival from the East (Syria). It became the chief imperial cult of the Roman Empire, until it was replaced by Christianity. In the old calendar the winter solstice (Bruma = shortest [day]) fell on Dec. 25, so this was the day on which Sol proved Himself to be yet unconquered. [OCD s.v. Sol; SFR 212]
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