Beginning on Dec 17th, the Roman Festival of Saturnalia was a time to upend conventions. Things that were illegal at other times of the year were permitted during the festival of Saturn. Sumptuary laws were broken to permit feasting and public drunkenness. It was time to party, party, party. Gambling was permitted.
It was also a great time for people who were normally constrained by their place. Women could let loose. Slaves and servants were given pride of place and were served at table by their masters. There was liberty for wives to tell the truth to husbands and for slaves to berate their masters.
Role reversal and guising were commonly practiced and these elements have become key components in our modern Christmas Panto. In pantomime the lead boy is often played by a woman, the dame is played by a man. Mistaken identity and upending of norms, where the pauper marries the princess are common themes.
Saturnalia was a festival of light centred around the week of the winter solstice. It involved bringing evergreen foliage into the house and using it to decorate the walls, symbolic of protecting the kindling. From this tradition we get the modern fashion for bedecking our halls with the holly and the ivy.
Candles were burned through Saturnalia as symbols of knowledge and learning, and translated into the current practice of lighting up homes for Christmas with coloured lights.
During Saturnalia work stopped and schools closed, to give people a holiday period, just as today.
Citizens put aside their togas and dressed instead in colourful greek outfits that were bright and garish. A bit like we do today by wearing gaudy cheesy Christmas jumpers.
Citizens, who normally walked bare headed, would doff a pilleus, a pointy felt cap usually worn by freedmen. Next time you are at the office christmas party and find a pointy cap on your dinner place setting you will know it is designed to reduce your status, and make all of you equal for the party.
Romans also had a tradition of gift giving for Saturnalia that we have translated to the notion of Santa Claus.
Ever wonder where the tradition of sending Christmas cards came from? You got it! It’s another Saturnalia custom. As with the verse below from Catullus Romans would send each other verses of poetry for the holiday. This year I revived something of the Roman tradition by sending framed poems to my family and to SOME friends.
Saturnalia Gift ; by Catullus
If I didn’t love you, sweet teasing Calvus,
far more than my own eyes, then for today’s gift
I’d hate you with the hate of Vatinius;
for what have I said or done to deserve it
that you’re killing me now with all these poets?
May the gods frown down on whichever client
settled accounts with this roll of miscreants
(unless, as I suspect, it’s that school-master
Sulla, writing off debts by setting these texts,
then I bear no hate, have no complaint to make:
at least your hard work receives due recompense).
God, here’s as cursed a verse as one might expect –
a book, I know, you sent to your Catullus
to finish him off, to floor and to bore us
on Saturnalia, our day for pleasure.
No, not so fast, you can’t escape, my false friend,
for if this long night of torment ever ends
I’m off to the bookshops to buy Caesius,
Aquinus and Suffenus, all poison pens,
to pay you back in full for your own torture.
Until then, goodbye, farewell, it’s time to quit:
let those bad feet limp away, lines and couplets,
disease of the age, unreadable poets.
(translated by Josephine Balmer)