• A licentious, often orgiastic period of unbridled revelry
  • A display of wanton extravagance
  • The ancient Roman religious festival celebrating Saturn, which was held in mid-December and was commemorated with unrestrained revelry across all strata of society


It might seem a bit surprising for a time of wild partying to be compared to a religious ceremony! However, the ancient Romans had some pretty wild religious festivals, and the Saturnalia was probably the wildest of them all. According to Roman mythology, Saturn ruled the world during the Golden Age of Men, before being overthrown by Jupiter. The Saturnalia commemorated the freedom, the prosperity, and the barbarity of that Golden Age. For a brief period all of society pretended that Saturn was still reigning, and along with that pretended, temporary reversal of cosmic authority came a pretended, temporary reversal of all social norms and authority. Unrestrained by convention, many Romans would engage in all manner of dissipation. However, according to several sources, this reversal also meant that masters would serve their slaves a meal, while the slaves were permitted to dress as freemen and mock their masters. In addition, the festival included gift-giving, costume-wearing, and animal-sacrificing. And overseeing all of this madness and celebration was the Saturnalicius princeps, a citizen appointed by casting lots, to rule over the festival with absolute authority, who could issue inane orders for people to dance around naked or eat strange foods.

Given all of this, it is probably pretty easy to see how the word has gained its contemporary meaning. Of course, if you should encounter the need, you can still use Saturnalia as a proper noun to refer to the historical Roman festival, but you can also use saturnalia (non-capitalized) to refer to any period of partying that defies or ignores social norms. Let us say, for example, that you attend your crazy cousin Kathy's wedding, and after the ceremony the whole thing rapidly devolves into an out of control orgy filled with all sorts of celebratory but uncouth behavior. Whether you enjoy the party or not, you could describe it as a saturnalia. In general, the word can be used to describe any situation which has maximized liberty to the point of jeopardizing order. In fact, it can be used even more broadly to refer to any example of extreme excess, even if that excess is not directly tied to a party. If you bought two hundred pillows, for example, your roommate might justly rebuke you for indulging in this saturnalia of goose down.

Saturnalia might be fun for a bit, but they are usually dangerous in the long run. And sadly our modern saturnalia don't usually even involve giving exotic animals as gifts or wearing brightly colored Greek dinner robes.

Example: The reign of the young Nero over Rome has been compared to the rule of the Saturnalicius princeps over the Saturnalia.

Example: Although some of the rebels' original goals had been laudable, their victorious celebration in the capital quickly turned from an orgiastic saturnalia into violent conflict.


The first recorded use of Saturnalia in English was in the 1590's. The word has not altered in form since its use in ancient Rome to refer to the festival of Saturn. Saturnalia is simply the neuter plural form of the adjective Saturnalis, meaning "pertaining to Saturn," and thus it means literally "those things pertaining to Saturn." The more general application of the term in English was first recorded in the late 18th century.

Derivative Words

Saturnalian: Saturnalian is an adjective which describes something related to Saturnalia in some way, be it to the historical Roman festival or to more general periods of licentiousness.

Example: The old gentleman did not approve of what he considered to be the saturnalian lifestyles of his carefree young neighbors.

In Literature

From Aldus Huxley's Doors in the Wall:

Art and religion, carnivals and saturnalia, dancing and listening to oratory—all these have served, in H.G. Wells's phrase, as Doors in the Wall.

Here, Huxley uses saturnalia as a plural to refer to various orgiastic revelries which he believes can provide a sort of temporary, marginal self-transcendence.

In Pop Culture

From the TV show The Big Bang Theory, Season 2 Episode 11 (YouTube):

Leonard: It's a Saturnalia miracle!

Leonard delivers this outburst when Sheldon, who refers to Christmas as Saturnalia, gives Penny a hug because he is overwhelmed with gratitude.


Celebrations, Holidays, History, Rome, Saturn, Religion

Bring out the linguist in you! What is your own interpretation of saturnalia. Did you use saturnalia in a game? Provide an example sentence or a literary quote.