Io Saturnalia!

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“The healthy being craves an occasional wildness, a jolt from normality, a sharpening of the edge of appetite, his own little festival of Saturnalia, a brief excursion from his way of life.” – Robert Morrison MacIver

A very merry, and joyous, Saturnalia to all those who celebrate it, knowingly or not.

The Temple of Saturn, Villa Torlonia, Rome (Shutterstock)

The Temple of Saturn, Villa Torlonia, Rome

“The Saturnalia was the most popular holiday of the Roman year. Catullus (XIV) describes it as “the best of days,” and Seneca complains that the “whole mob has let itself go in pleasures” (Epistles, XVIII.3). Pliny the Younger writes that he retired to his room while the rest of the household celebrated (Epistles, II.17.24). It was an occasion for celebration, visits to friends, and the presentation of gifts, particularly wax candles (cerei), perhaps to signify the returning light after the solstice, and sigillaria. Martial wrote Xenia and Apophoreta for theSaturnalia. Both were published in December and intended to accompany the “guest gifts” which were given at that time of year. Aulus Gellius relates that he and his Roman compatriots would gather at the baths in Athens, where they were studying, and pose difficult questions to one another on the ancient poets, a crown of laurel being dedicated to Saturn if no-one could answer them (Attic Nights, XVIII.2).”

So get out your statue of Saturn, or if you don’t have one, I suppose a statue of Santa will have to do, place him on your best couch, and let the merriment begin!

“According to the Augustan historian Livy, following the sacrifice the Roman senate arranged a lectisternium, a ritual of Greek origin that typically involved placing the deity’s image on a sumptuous couch, as if he were present and actively participating in the festivities. A public banquet was held (convivium publicum), and afterward the shouting of io Saturnalia began, originally only on the single day.”

Those floppy red Santa hats? Also very appropriate for Saturnalia!

“One of the things I discovered in my research is that people wore a distinctive the floppy cap at Saturnalia known as a pileus or cap of liberty (see photo above, coin on the left). It was worn by ex-slaves  to symbolise their freedom. The custom of slaves and masters swapping places made thepileus the customary headware during the Saturnalia festivities. The pileus presumably is where Santa’s cap comes from. The next time you see revellers wearing the red and white  Christmas hat think about the ancient Romans and their slaves.”

As history professor, and Catholic priest, Gregory Elder points out: now is a time to loosen the bonds of our daily lives.

“In ordinary time, women and slaves were forbidden wine, but this rule was relaxed for the holiday. Likewise all restrictions on gambling were suspended, schools were closed, and people gave one another inexpensive presents, such as knives or dice. The toga, the mark of male citizens, was never worn, but colorful party clothes. The custom was also to wear a pointy skull cap, shaped like a small cone, rather like a pointy fez, called a “pileus.” Ordinarily, the pileus was worn only by freed slaves to commemorate their new liberations, but now everyone wore it, perhaps to represent that they were freed from the restrictions of ordinary life. In ordinary time, the statue of Saturn in the temple was tied with ropes, but on this festival, the ropes were undone, perhaps to represent a general loosening of old restrictions. A general tone of revelry prevailed in the Roman community.”

So lets start off this Winter holiday season by being a bit more charitable, a bit more fun, and a bit more open to reversing the norms of our daily lives. Io Saturnalia!