Or, as the Romans would say, “Io, Saturnalia!”
Saturnalia is the holiday celebrated from December 17 – 23, in honour of the god Saturn, and, just like the modern holiday season, it was a time of gift-giving, partying, and eating with friends and family. Saturnalia was an intentionally topsy-turvy kind of celebration, where the usual rules of life were suspended for a while. Slaves were served at banquests by their masters, and were allowed during the festival to say what they really thought without threat of punishment (though I’m sure everyone was acutely aware of how the tables would turn once the masters were back in charge), togas were set aside in favour of the brightly coloured Greek synthesis, and both citizens and slaves wore the pilleus, a conical cap usually reserved for freedmen. Gambling was permitted for everyone, and drunkenness and over-eating were the rule of the day.
Each household or gathering also nominated a King of Saturnalia, whose job it was to keep everything fun. His orders, which might have included things like “Get naked and sing!” had to be obeyed by guests. (It’s believed that the Lord of Misrule, who played a similar role in medieval Christmases, was based on the King of Saturnalia.)
On December 19, the Sigillaria, a day of gift-giving, occurred. For those of you who still have a couple of last-minute gifts to grab, here are some suggestions from Martial:
Most popular of these were sigillaria, pottery or wax figures made in the likeness of a divinity. Most were relatively cheap, but some, made from bronze, silver or gold, were of course quite expensive.
Just like Christmas though, gag gifts were also popular. The poet Catullus once received a book of bad poems from a friend who obviously knew what would make him laugh.
One of the things I love so much about history isn’t how much people have changed, but how much we’re still exactly the same. So this holiday season, if you’re enjoying some fun games with the family and friends as you laugh over your silly stocking stuffer gifts, it might be fun to remember that you’re doing exactly what people were doing a couple of thousand years ago.