Saturnalia was "the best of days," according to the Roman poet Catullus. The ancient and rather wild Roman festival honored the Roman god Saturn, one of the early agricultural gods. This festival of light which led up to the winter solstice was originally celebrated on December 17th and later expanded an additional week to December 23rd. Lighted candles, often given as gifts during the celebration, symbolized the search for knowledge and truth and the approach of the new year. The celebration ended with the exchange of gifts among family, friends, and the slaves.
IO SATURNALIA. Saturnalia was a holiday from all forms of work. Schools were closed, and athletic workouts were suspended. The courts were closed, so no justice was administered, and no declaration of war could be made. In Rome, the festival began with a sacrifice at the Temple of Saturn in the Roman Forum and a public banquet which was attended by Saturn’s statue that reclined on one of the couches used for dining. The revelers then took the celebration outside where shouts of "Io Saturnalia" filled the streets. (Io, pronounced "yo," was an expression of elation.)
MASTERS SERVE SLAVES. On December 18th and 19th, Romans continued their celebration in their homes. Those who could afford it sacrificed a suckling pig, a traditional offering for an earth-god, for the feast. The slaves and the masters reversed roles. The masters put aside their togas, donned skimpy outfits with peaked conical caps often traditionally worn by Greeks (and freed slaves), and served the slaves during the banquet.
OK TO BE NAUGHTY. Gambling which was frowned upon at any other time for the citizens and forbidden to the slaves was permitted during Saturnalia. Rampant overeating and drunkenness was the rule. The Stoic philosopher and statesman Seneca (the teacher of Nero who eventually ordered Seneca to commit suicide) wrote "the greatest part of the city is in a bustle. Loose reins are given to public dissipation." In the years of the Roman empire, the Lord of Misrule, the Saturnalicius princeps, presided over the conduct of the holiday. He could give bizarre orders which had to be obeyed. ("Sing naked." or "Toss him in the Tiber. ")
CHRISTIANS STEAL THE DAY. Saturnalia was popular until the 3rd or 4th century AD when it died out with the rise of Christianity. Some elements of the celebration like caroling and the giving of gifts were intentionally carried over into the Christmas celebrations. The Lord of Misrule can also be found in the Italian carnival celebrations.
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Happy Holidays, Rita Bay.