It’s the time of the year when every Romanophile secretly wonders how they could celebrate Saturnalia, without looking like a weirdo to everyone who celebrates the more acceptable holidays of midwinter in these modern times.
Well, fear no more! Here is a tongue-in-cheek list to help you crypto-Romanophiles celebrate the grandest of holidays, without looking any worse than any other audaciously clad celebrant in the streets!
Let’s examine the constituent elements of a good Saturnalia bash, and offer alternatives fit for this atrociously modern day and age.
Saturnalia was originally held on December 17th (Julian calendar), and later expanded to last till the 23rd. That actually places it in the first two week of January.
Solution: who cares, the silly season starts as soon as the pumpkins rot anyway. Just behave as (ab)normally as you would for the celebrations in your vicinity.
Private gift-giving and exchange was a central part of the social interactions. However, in the eras we normally associate with “Ancient Rome” (the late Republic and Principate), people were a lot more sensible. Instead of giving each other knitwear that no one civilised wears (really, it’s tunics and togas unless you grew up in the woods) or electronic devices that would be useless for at least a couple of millennia till chargers are invented, they exchanged gag-gifts.
These often took the form of Sigillaria – small wax or pottery figurines, that were a wink and a nod to the (much) earlier practice of human sacrifice.
Solution: it’s action figures for everyone (yes, even grampa Moses). It’s a figurine, it’s a gag, and it won’t get you arrested.
There were two kinds of feasting traditional to Saturnalia: public and private. And, of course, feasting was related to sacrifice in ancient Rome – the gods got the smoke from the burnt offerings, the human public got the steaks. Let’s see how we can address this.
This was often held at the Forum. Priests would sacrifice to the gods – both to Saturn and his son Jupiter Best and Greatest, the patron of our great city. Once the sacrificial bits went up in smoke, the remains of the carcasses would be roasted and divvied up to anyone with a plate.
In addition, public officials (the aediles) would put on tables laden with treats free for any citizen. Just wear your togas and have a blast!
Solution: your company’s annual Xmas dinner will count for the the public feast. For sacrifices, just slip a few snags on the barbie and mutter a silent prayer at home on the public holiday you get to enjoy off work. (For anyone who thinks the preceding sentence has something to do with inappropriate behaviour of the previously mentioned action figures – get your mind out of the gutter).
As much as some of you would like to avoid it, I’m sure you end up taking part in a long, privately-held feast, in which Uncle James and Auntie Clara would get into the annual airing of the laundry once enough wine has been consumed.
However, an important aspect of Saturnalia was the reversal of roles. While choosing a fool for a “King of the Day” to give idiotic merrymaking directives is probably not required (at least not in most Western democracies, where recent politics have made this a touchy subject), in private the tradition was for the slaves to recline in the triclinium, and for the masters of the house to serve them dinner.
Solution: not really a problem for the modern household. The wife and I, as masters of the domain, would swap roles with the people who normally slave over cooking and cleaning (namely, the wife and I). It just ends up more of the same, really.
During Saturnalia, the streets of Rome were awash with continual spirit of carnival and partying. Gambling was allowed, and the wine merchants were making a mint.
Solution: have fun, but don’t get arrested. Don’t forget the garum.
As mentioned, the main ceremony was on December 17th. Besides the sacrifices mentioned above (sacrifices always being held in front of temples), inside the temple of Saturn the feet of the god were unbound from their wool fetters, washed, and anointed with oil. The statue would then be wheeled out and placed on a couch, to participate in the public feasting.
By the time of the Republic, the reason behind the wool-fetters was lost to antiquity, and it was taken as a general act of liberation. Now, Saturn was a grim and gloomy chthonic god, but with the advent of civilisation human sacrifice has been commuted into gladiatorial games.
Solution: what you do in the privacy is your own business, but if you try to fondle public statues or attack passersby with a gladius, please don’t mention me.
That’s it for now. I hope you learned something new, and found out how you can recreate a flavour of ancient history in these modern times. Besides general silliness of the season, the upcoming Felix novel In Victrix occurs partly over Saturnalia. Hope this got you in the mood for it!