There is always much discussion and rumbling this time of year as to how we should approach the holiday season in a public setting like the kind provided by a public school. There is always some grumbling about possibly leaving someone out of the celebration or offending someone due to a student’s religious beliefs. The beauty of teaching a subject like ancient Latin is that we don’t have to worry about such things since the holidays of ancient Rome predate most current religious holidays while also allowing for a cultural backdrop to include all students equally.
Teaching about the Saturnalia not only allows students to have some fun before their holiday break, but it also exposes students of Latin to ancient Roman culture. There are several topics that are addressed: mythology, Roman social orders, religious beliefs, and customs. By examining our past we also can better understand our present in that we can see where the origins of our current holidays come from.
The story of the Saturnalia focuses first and foremost on the god Saturn himself. This deity is often linked to a Greek model like Chronos, but when examining the origins of the ancient Roman version we see there is a loose affiliation. For the Romans, the god Saturn ruled over the area of Latium in a kind of golden age, before mankind had to toil for their livelihood. In fact, for the Romans, Saturnus was an agricultural deity and was married to Ops, the personification of fruitfulness and fertility.
The original day celebrated to honor Saturn was a holy day (thus the world holiday) on which religious rites were practiced. Held at the Temple of Saturn in the forum Romanum, regarded as the oldest of the Roman temples, the rite focused on the releasing of Saturn from his bonds – woolen bonds were tied to the cult statue within the temple, the loosening of which symbolized his freedom and a return to the Age of Saturn.
There was a sacrifice held out front of the temple to commemorate the return of Saturn. Some have recorded that a lectisternium was set up for the god to participate in the festival along with the Roman practitioners. Everyone shouted “Io Saturnalia!” to greet one another during the festival – this is where the origins of Santa’s “Ho Ho Ho!” come from.
The length of the Saturnalia varies throughout history, usually it was a week-long celebration, but it had been shortened to as many as 5 or even 3 days. The people of Rome tended to blow off steam, celebrating with parties, wine, gambling, and exchanging gifts.
Gambling was usually forbidden in Rome, but it was relaxed during the Saturnalia and kind of contributed to the wild mood and festive partying throughout the city. It was usually a fun but chaotic time as the ancient sources tell us (Catullus, Seneca, per exempla). Yet, it was supposed to be a return to the Age of Saturn, when mankind didn’t have to toil for his food; a time of paradise on earth. Since Roman society was hierarchical, it was also a time in which the slaves were given a chance to have their roles reversed. Typically, Roman slaves prepared meals for their masters who ate first, but during the Saturnalia the slaves prepared their meal first and served their masters after.
The toga, a sign of Roman citizenship and a clear distinction of the hierarchy of the social order, was also dropped in favor of more relaxed wear like the Greek synthesis. The pileus cap, a red cap of Phrygian origin and worn by slaves that were given their freedom, also became a symbol of Saturnalia and the return to that golden age. In fact, slaves were regarded as equals and were even allowed to wear their masters’ clothing on occasion. A king was selected for each household as a “Lord of Chaos” who emceed the party and usually demanded what events occurred.
“During my week the serious is barred; no business allowed. Drinking, noise and games and dice, appointing of kings and feasting of slaves, singing naked, clapping of frenzied hands, an occasional ducking of corked faces in icy water. Such are the functions over which I preside.”
It was a wild time, and certainly one in which the city looked forward to. The Saturnalia, however, wasn’t all about extreme behavior. It was a time for people to come together, to reflect. Gifts were exchanged; waxed candles (cerei) or small figurines (sigillaria) were among the typical prizes.
In all, the Saturnalia resembles our current holiday season. The mad-dash to get gifts and to make travel arrangements and other preparations so that these visits with family and friends can ensure a lifetime of memories. We try to put aside our busy schedules for a moment to reconnect with those we care about. We don’t forget that life is meant for living, and we celebrate so that we can feel alive and be thankful for what we have.
These are the messages that should be emphasized. This time of year is about connecting with one another in the biggest social network of all – the human network.
Here are some fun things that could be done in Latin class, in order to commemorate the Saturnalia:
- Adopt a Saturnus mascot and tie up bindings on him. To start the celebration, ritualistically “unbind” Saturnus to commemorate the start of the Saturnalia. Have students leave offerings from the party for Saturnus – just like the Romans did at his lectisternium!
- Play Roman games like par/impar, mola, knucklebones. This way students can learn about the customs of the Romans and, if you dare, even give out fake money to encourage students to gamble like at the Saturnalia. Another fun way to make the gaming part of the party come out is to get students to bring prizes to the party (set a spending limit like $5 or so) and have students bid on each gift with their winnings.
The key thing to communicate is that the Saturnalia is one way in which cultures of the ancient world expressed the full range of human emotions that we experience today. It helps make this time of year more relevant; it doesn’t try to take away the meaning of the season. Also, in studying and celebrating the Saturnalia, we can examine how even though we may celebrate this time of year differently, we all are celebrating the same things – just in different ways. It promotes more compassion, more understanding.
So, it is with this spirit of the season that I say to you all – “IO SATVRNALIA!”
Saturnalia – Cites ancient sources and goes into more detail about the origins of the holiday
Saturnalia Wikipedia – Contains a pretty good synopsis behind the reason for the season