Open Thread - Thurs 08 Dec 2022: December Celebrations!
In a couple of weeks or so it'll be time to celebrate... Saturnalia! What did you think I was gonna say? .
Saturnalia was (and is!) an ancient Roman festival in honor of the god Saturn. It's held in December, and is associated with the shortest day of the year - winter solstice and the rebirth of the sun the next day. Saturnalia is, of course, pagan. Ancient Greece had an equivalent called the Kronia. It was celebrated in mid-July to mid-August.
Saturnalia was originally celebrated on December 17th on the Julian calendar; the holiday and celebrations grew in length over time until by the late Republic (c. 130's BC) they went until the 23rd of December.
Who Was Saturn:
Saturn was an old god, an agricultural deity who reigned over the Golden Period 'when humans enjoyed the spontaneous bounty of the earth without labour in a state of innocence. The revelries of Saturnalia were supposed to reflect the conditions of the lost mythical age'. (quote from Wikipedia link above).
Saturn may have originated as a king who reigned amongst the pre-Roman Italians, according to Justinus, a Roman writer from the late 300's AD:
The first inhabitants of Italy were the Aborigines, whose king, Saturnus, is said to have been a man of such extraordinary justice, that no one was a slave in his reign, or had any private property, but all things were common to all, and undivided, as one estate for the use of every one; in memory of which way of life, it has been ordered that at the Saturnalia slaves should everywhere sit down with their masters at the entertainments, the rank of all being made equal.
— Justinus, Epitome of Pompeius Trogus 43.3 (as quoted in the Wikipedia article about Saturnalia linked above)
The festival originated with the celebrations of Saturn and his reign, and celebrations of agriculture with farming related rituals and a sacrifice at the temple of Saturn on the 17th of December. Gifts and sacrifices to the gods were offered during the winter sowing season, in order to make that season successful and the resulting crops bountiful. This ritual was practiced all around the Roman Empire by Roman troops, their families, and so on, so it spread everywhere and was combined with local pagan traditions for winter solstice.
A parade during Saturnalia, re-enacted in Chester, England, image from here
During Saturnalia all work and business was suspended. People decorated their homes with greenery, wreaths and lights (candles of course). They wore special colorful clothing instead of togas. Feasts occurred, and a special aspect of these was that the rich, the slave owners and such, changed places with their slaves for the feast. So they served their slaves! Slaves were given the freedom to say and do as they wished (within reason, of course). Some moral restrictions were eased and the cities and towns of Rome and the Empire (and the forts and fortresses of the troops) became filled with something like what we would know as a 'Mardi Gras madness'. A mock king was selected, and various gifts were given (the traditional gifts were wax models of fruit, wax statuettes, and candles).
During Saturnalia the phrase 'Io Saturnalia' was used as a salutation and shouted a lot. The first part of it is Greek (Io) and that part was generally used as an emotive ritual exclamation or to punctuate a joke.
So, with the end of the pagan Empire and the beginning and (oftentimes forced) flourishing of Christianity, Saturnalia was forgotten, right?
A modern sculpture showing Saturnalia fun, by Ernesto Biondi, 1909, image from here
Naw, much of it (and other celebrations of deities at the shortest day of the year, like Mithras, who was born on... Dec 25th) was moved/taken over/stolen for Christmas. Britannica says "The influence of the Saturnalia upon the celebrations of Christmas and the New Year has been direct."
Io.... Io... Ho... Ho... Ho?
So, thanks for reading and here's the open thread - and remember, everything is interesting if you dive deep enough, so tell us about where you're diving!