Kronia honored the Greek Titan Kronos (Cronus), while the Saturnalia honored his counterpart, the Italian agricultural god Saturn.
While both festivals were celebrated around New Year's day -- at least at some point in their history, since the Roman year ran from either March or January -- the beginning of the Athenian year was in the summer -- the end of July to the first part of August, so it wasn't a winter solstice or even a solstice festival, as Saturnalia (running from December 17 to about December 23) was. Kronia's date was the 12th of the first month of the year, Hecatombaeon, in Athens, Kronion, eponymously, elsewhere.
License and role reversal made both holidays popular. In Religions of the Ancient World: A Guide, Sarah Iles Johnston describes the Kronia's salient characteristic as the temporary freeing of slaves. Their masters waited upon them during the festival. In Ancient Religions, Johnston quotes a passage (fragment 3) from the second to first century B.C. Roman playwright Accius on the origins of Roman festivals to say that some festival (presumed to be the Saturnalia) springs from a festival, celebrated all over Greece, in which masters serve feasts to their slaves.
The festival is thought to bring back mankind's Golden Age [see The Five Ages of Man] in which Kronos reigned supreme -- before Zeus toppled him:
"And they lived like gods without sorrow of heart, remote and free from toil and grief: miserable age rested not on them; but with legs and arms never failing they made merry with feasting beyond the reach of all evils."
Hesiod Works and Days
Robert L. Merritt says the Panathenaia festival of Athens was foisted upon the older Kronia. The 4th century B.C. Greek orator Demosthenes refers to both holidays:
" Now, of all these rules the defendant Timocrates has not observed one. He never exhibited his law; he gave no one a chance to read it and oppose it; nor did he wait for any of the dates appointed by statute. The assembly at which your vote was taken fell on the eleventh of Hecatombaeon, and he introduced his law on the twelfth, the very next day, although it was a feast of Cronos and the Council therefore stood adjourned; for he had contrived, with the help of persons whose intentions are unfriendly to you, to get by decree a sitting of the Legislative Committee, on an excuse afforded by the Panathenian Festival."
Demosthenes "Against Timocrates" 24.26
Note that there were Greek winter solstice celebrations.
- "Parerga II: The Date of the Nemean Games," by Stephen D. Lambert; Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik, Bd. 139, (2002), pp. 72-74.
- "Jesus Barabbas and the Paschal Pardon," by Robert L. Merritt; Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 104, No. 1 (Mar., 1985), pp. 57-68.
- Ancient Religions, by Sarah Iles Johnston
- Religions of the Ancient World: A Guide, by Sarah Iles Johnston