Hilaria were ancient Roman religious festivals celebrated on the vernal equinox to honor Cybele, mother of the gods; The winter with its gloom had died, and the first day of a better season was spent in rejoicings. All kinds of games and amusements were allowed on this day; masquerades were the most prominent among them, and everyone might, in his disguise, imitate whomsoever he liked, and even magistrates.
The hilaria were in reality only the last day of a festival of Cybele, which commenced on March 22, and was solemnised by the Galli with various mysterious rites. The full festival can be tentatively reconstructed (with the days of the festival literally translated) as follows:
– 15 March. ‘The Reed Entered’. Its exact significance is uncertain (the reeds may refer to the river bank where Attis was exposed as a child and rescued by Cybele.) A nine-day period of abstinence from bread, pomegranates, quinces, pork, fish and probably wine began. Only milk was permitted as a drink.
– 22 March. ‘The Tree Entered’ (Arbor intrat). A pine tree from a wood sacred to Cybele is felled following the sacrifice of a ram at its roots. The tree was carried in procession through the city as if in a funeral to the Temple of Cybele on the Palatine Hill.
– 23 March. A day of mourning.
– 24 March. ‘The Day of Blood’ (Sanguis). Frenzied rites including scourging and whipping. Castration rituals would take place on this day. The tree is symbolically buried.
– 25 March. ‘The Day of Joy’ (Hilaria) celebrating the resurrection of Attis. This was the hilaria proper (as opposed to the mournful tone of the previous days).
– 26 March. A day of rest.
– 27 March. ‘The Washing’ (Lavatio). Added by Marcus Aurelius.
– 28 March. Possible ceremony at the Vatican sanctuary. Appears in the Calendar of Philocalus.