aturnalia and Hanukkah more or less coincide this year, which is indeed a coincidence, except insofar as both of them are seasonal festivals associated with the solstice. Since Julius Caesar, at any rate, the Roman calendar has been fixed to the apparent movements of the sun, while since the Exile the Judean calendar has been based on the (now long-defunct otherwise) luni-solar Babylonian reckoning.
I see from an early nineteenth-century compendium of universal history that the first Saturnalia was celebrated with the dedication of the temple of Saturn in 9407 HE (594 BCE), some 2607 years ago—if that’s at all believable. Of course there’s an arbitrary quality to it all—presumably the Romans were still on their original intercalated lunar calendar, and what date it would have fallen on using a proleptic Gregorian calendar is (as far as I can tell) anybody’s guess. The Penny Cyclopaedia, deriving its information from Macrobius, informs us that Saturnalia “had been celebrated by the Aborigines long before the building of the city, and was instituted by the fabulous king Janus, after the disappearance of Saturnus from the earth” according to some traditions, or was “instituted by the Pelasgians” or possibly by “king Tullus Hostilius, who, after a successful war against the Albans and Sabines, was said to have founded the temple and established the festival of Saturnus at Rome”.
Tullius Hostilius (reigned 9329-9361) was the third king of Rome, and is considered largely legendary, unlike his contemporary Manasseh (reigned 9314-9358), king of Judah, who is considered historical, despite the fact that all we really have for either of them is biased and uncertain testimony of much later documents. Both drew the criticism of their respective historians over religious matters. The Deuteronomist wrote of Manasseh that he “did that which was evil in Yahweh’s sight, after the abominations of the nations whom Yahweh cast out before the children of Israel. … He built altars for all the army of the sky in the two courts of Yahweh’s house. He made his son to pass through the fire, practiced sorcery, used enchantments, and dealt with those who had familiar spirits, and with wizards. He did much evil in Yahweh’s sight, to provoke him to anger.” (II Kings 21) His “persecution” of the Yahweh-alone faction (by allowing the worship of other deities) did not sit well with the historian, who attributed to him all the misfortunes that were to befall Judah later on. And Livy wrote of Tullus Hostilius that at first he “thought nothing less becoming a king, than to busy his thoughts in matters of religion,” and then, toward the end of his life became “a slave to every kind of superstition, in cases either of great or of trifling import, and even filled the minds of the people also with superstitious notions.” Eventually the king tried to restore “certain sacrifices, of a secret and solemn nature, [that] had been performed to Jupiter Elicius,” but screwed them up somehow and “through the resentment of Jupiter, for being addressed in an improper manner, was struck with lightning, and reduced to ashes, together with his house.” (History of Rome, I.31)
Still, regardless of the exact date, it was somewhen in there, two and a half millennia ago, that Saturnalia was first celebrated. When it was last celebrated appears to be an open question. Maybe it still is, in spirit. Like our own Yuletide it was a time of reversals. Our ultra-capitalist society regards looking after the poor with horror gift-giving 364 days of the year—and then welcomes it on the 365th. Roman society observed a strict order in master-slave relations—until Saturnalia, when masters would serve slaves. Saturnalia featured banqueting and gift-giving—and so does our modern Xmas. It is hard to kill a holiday. The puritans tried to kill Xmas—and when that didn’t work, their spiritual descendants worked to christianize the hell out of it.
So, anyway, io Saturnalia, everybody. Io, bona Saturnalia!