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Romans, though you’re guiltless, you’ll still expiate
your fathers’ sins, till you’ve restored the temples,
and the tumbling shrines of all the gods,
and their images, soiled with black smoke.
~Horace, Odes, III, 6; A. S. Kline trans.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Get ready for Saturnalia!

(This entry is from our calendar, but Saturnalia is so popular, and the season is so busy, that it seems best to post this now, so there will be enough time to prepare.)

Saturnalia, "the best of days" according to the poet Catullus, begins on the 17th and continues to the 23rd. Saturnalia is the festival honoring Saturnus, who introduced agriculture and the arts of civilized life. It was the season when agricultural work was completed; a sort of joyous Thanksgiving-type holiday of relaxation and merriment. During Saturnalia, businesses, courts and schools were closed.

Albius Tibulus, the elegaic poet wrote of the time when Saturn reigned and all people lived a happy pastoral life (Tibulus I.3):

How fine was human life in Saturn’s reign, before the earth was opened up to far campaigns!

No mast had then yet dared to tempt the azure waves nor spread its billowing canvas to the winds;

no trader, wandering alien lands in search of gain, had yet weighed down his ship with foreign wares.

No burly oxen then submitted to the yoke; no broken horses tamely champed the bit.

No house had doors, no stones were fixed among the fields to mark off acreage in rigid bounds.

The oaks themselves dripped honey, and of themselves the ewes brought swollen udders to the carefree folk.

There were no battle-lines, no wrath, no wars, nor had the harsh smith’s ruthless cunning forged the blade.
Saturnalia was a time for gift-giving. The 13th and 14th books of Martial's Epigrams (titled Xenia and Apophoreta, respectively) and published on Saturnalia in 84 or 85 CE, give us the best information about the wide range of possible gifts; they are clever tags, describing the gifts in oblique ways. Most in Xenia are foods; smoked cheese, radishes, raisins, a jar of plums. The gifts in Apophoreta are more varied, ranging from dice, a stylus case and a toothpick to a dinner couch, Arretine vases and dishes inlaid with gold.

Saturnalia was a time when normal rules were broken. The formal toga was not worn, but the informal synthesis was worn instead. (Wear your most comfortable and colorful tunic.) The conical felt "freedman's cap" was worn as well. Slaves were allowed to gamble, and within bounds were allowed freedom when speaking to their masters. Slaves ate first and the masters later.

Saturnalia Today

"For how many years shall this festival abide! Never shall age destroy so holy a day! While the hills of Latium remain and father Tiber, while thy Rome stands and the Capitol thou hast restored to the world, it shall continue" (Statius, Silvae, I.6.98ff)

Saturnalia falls at the time when non-Romans are celebrating Christmas, Hanukkah, Solstice and/or Kwanzaa. Individuals may choose different approaches to the challenge of celebrating in the spirit of Rome without cutting themselves off from the culture in which they live. Here are some ideas:

  • Wear the colors of the holiday, green and gold.
  • Decorate over doorways, windows and even stairs with greenery. Garlands or wreaths are ideal. Add golden cutouts of the sun or golden pine-cones, nuts, acorns.
  • If you have living trees on your own property, hang them with sun symbols, stars, and faces of the God Janus (who watches over the end of the old year and the beginning of the new one). In Roman times, trees were not brought indoors but were decorated where they grew. It is also possible to decorate living plants in pots.
  • Make cookies in the shapes of fertility symbols, suns and moons and stars, and herd animal shapes. You can make your own cookie cutters if you're keen! Use green and/or gold food colors or sprinkles.
  • If you are of legal drinking age where you live, make some mulsum, a drink of wine and honey.
  • Greet people with the traditional cry of "Io, Saturnalia!" This is pronounced "eeyo sa-tur-NAL-ee-uh".
  • Invite your friends for a feast and a party on December 17th. Saturnalia is a joyous holiday and Romans shared it with friends and family.
  • Give small presents, including presents of food or sweets, or candles or lamps. Attach a clever note or a short witty poem to your gifts. Read the Roman poet Martial ("Xenia" and "Apophoreta") for some authentic examples from Roman times.
  • Clean your lararium. Safely light a candle there. Display and decorate a statue of Saturnus, if you have one, or a photo of a statue or painting of him.
  • Togas were not worn for Saturnalia, but tunics were. Tunic instructions are here, and also see elsewhere on this page for links to more Roman WikiHow articles.

Check the Meetup Everywhere map to find a Saturnalia event near you, or to create your own.


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1 comment:

  1. Thank you so much for posting this! I started my preparations today and there's a lot to do before the 17th of December. Your post is a most welcomed adition of ideas and information.