Today marks the beginning of Saturnalia, an ancient Roman holiday dedicated to the pagan god Saturn. Ever heard of it? No? You might actually be celebrating some part of it and not even know it. Hold that thought.
On December 17, the Romans would go to the temples and unbind the feet of their statues of Saturn (Normally they were adorned with felt shoes) and even move their idols to tables for banquets in honor of the god. Government shut down to some degree. It was forbidden to declare war or sentence criminals during Saturnalia.
In the public, the normally rigid Roman class structure was thrown out of the window. Everyone let down their hair a little bit and spoke their minds – even Roman slaves! During Saturnalia, slaves were allowed to criticize their masters without rebuke. Some scholars say that masters and slaves dined together. Women, normally second class citizens, were allowed to mingle freely with men to some extent.
Saturnalia was celebrated with drinking, gambling, feasting, parties, festivals and games. Costumes were commonplace, and many people wore masks to protect their identity as they participated in the holiday’s normally forbidden pleasures. It was five days (or seven, depending on when in history it was celebrated) of partying that was probably a lot like Mardi Gras. Toward the end of Saturnalia, people gave each other gifts of different sorts. Adults got little gag gifts and small tokens, and children received toys.
Hmm… Late December… time off from work… parties… feasts.. toys for children… this Saturnalia thing is starting to sound awfully familiar, isn’t it?
Christianity was declared the state religion of Rome in 312 AD, but Saturnalia festivals continued for some time afterward. In much the way that Easter still retains remnants of ancient pagan traditions (Fertility symbols like rabbits and eggs), some of Saturnalia’s festivities simply morphed into Christian celebrations. While Saturnalia did not become Christmas, things like singing in the streets became Christmas caroling, and anyone who has gone to enough Christmas parties has probably seen their share of – ahem – Saturnalian indulgences. Things can get a little wild when the eggnog comes out, can’t they?
References to Saturnalia have made appearances in geek-friendly fare like “The Big Bang Theory”, although I’m sad to report that Sheldon does not approve:
The Big Bang Theory’s season 2 Christmas special, ‘The Bath Gift Item Hypothesis’ (the one where Penny gives Sheldon the napkin from Leonard Nimoy) includes the following dialogue:
Penny: Hey Sheldon, are you and Leonard putting up a Christmas tree?
Sheldon Cooper: No, because we don’t celebrate the ancient pagan festival of Saturnalia.
Howard Wolowitz: Gather round, kids, it’s time for Sheldon’s beloved Christmas special.
Sheldon Cooper: In the pre-Christian era, as the winter solstice approached and the plants died, pagans brought evergreen boughs into their homes as an act of sympathetic magic, intended to guard the life essences of the plants until spring. This custom was later appropriated by Northern Europeans and eventually it becomes the so-called Christmas tree.
Howard Wolowitz: And that, Charlie Brown, is what boredom is all about.
Then there’s Grant Callin’s 1986 science fiction novel Saturnalia, but it’s about a space colony, not the Roman holiday. Also, you dinosaur lovers might be happy to know that there’s a small dinosaur that’s named for the holiday. No idea how he liked to party, though.
Today is just the start of Saturnalia – we’ve got five more days – so how should the history-minded geek celebrate Saturnalia? Here are some suggestions:
- Load up on silly gag gifts from Archie McPhee or Think Geek. They’ve got tons of weird stuff to hand out to friends.
- Forget inviting “Saturn” to the party. Celebrate the dinosaur instead. You’ll have a hard time finding a Saturnalia replica, but why not extend the invitation to party to ALL dinosaurs? Buy a few toy dinosaurs and leave them around the house.
- Have a big Italian meal and some adult beverages. Italian cuisine? Pizza counts. It totally counts. Grab some wine or beer, if you’re of age and so inclined. Heck, you can even go out to an Italian restaurant. No matter what, be sure to leave a place at the table in honor of Saturnalia the dinosaur.
- Cosplay, cosplay, cosplay. The Romans wore masks and costumes during Saturnalia. This is an awesome opportunity to don your favorite cosplay gear. Why wait until the next convention? You can also wear togas, gladiator costumes and (of course) a Saturnalia the dinosaur costume.
- Gorge on Italian/Roman style television and movies. Watch “Spartacus”, “Gladiator” or “Rome” on DVD or Blu-Ray. If you really want to please Saturnalia the dinosaur, you could watch “Jurassic Park”!
- Speak freely, but not too freely: Making fun of your friends and family is a tricky thing to pull off without hurt feelings. Maybe pick out a few celebrities or politicians to insult over dinner. Perhaps every person can choose one and you can go around the table and say something one at a time. Alternatively, If you want to, you can all “talk back” at the evening’s movies or television shows. Someone will have to speak up on behalf of Saturnalia the dinosaur.
- Gladiator fight! What’s more Roman than gladiatorial combat? Get Nerf guns and foam swords and go at it in the back yard. Declare someone the champion and demand that she or he shout “Are you not entertained?” at the end of the melee.
- Get your song and dance on. Play music, hit the dance floor, sing along. It’s Saturnalia, baby!