To nourish your mind as well as your body

Anger and intolerance are the enemies of correct understanding.

-Mahatma Gandhi

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Celebrating Saturnalia

"Io, Saturnalia!"

In the Roman calendar, Saturnalia was a holy day (Dec 17) on which religious rites were performed to honor Saturnus (or Saturn), the god of seed and sowing. Saturn's consort Ops, who personified abundance and fruits of the earth, was also celebrated at this time; since together they represented the produce of both the fields and the orchards, they were thought to also represent heaven and earth. Good food and good wine. Sound like any holidays you're familiar with?

Saturnalia was, in addition to a holy day, also a festival day. The Romans called it Dies Natalis Invicti Solis, the Birthday of the Unconquered Sun. After the sacrifices at the Temple of Saturn, and the prayers, there would be a public banquet and the celebrants, according Macrobius' Saturnalia, would shout "Io, Saturnalia!" riotously. The halls of houses were decked with boughs of laurel and evergreen trees. Lamps were kept burning to ward off the spirits of darkness. Schools were closed, the army rested, and no criminals were executed. Friends visited one another, bringing good-luck gifts of fruit, cakes, candles, dolls, jewellery, and incense. Temples were decorated with evergreens symbolizing life's continuity, and processions of people with masked faces danced through the streets.
Saturnalia was the most popular holiday of the Roman year, and traditionally went on for three to seventeen days (depending on the politicians in charge at the time). It was a time for celebration, visiting friends, and presenting gifts such as wax candles (cerei) and small earthenware figurines (sigillaria). They also had a tradition of decorating an outdoor tree (they did not bring the tree indoors, that was a German innovation) with symbols of stars and the sun, gilded cakes, and fertility symbols (baby shapes, and herd animal shapes such as goats and deer). They also decorated indoors with swaths, garlands, and wreaths of greenery over the windows and doors.

Restrictions were relaxed and social order inverted. Each family elected a "Lord of Misrule", a custom which was appropriated and survived through to English Christmas traditions. Slaves did not have to work and were treated as equals, allowed to wear their masters clothing and be waited on at meal time. Public gambling was allowed. Even the socially accepted standards of clothing were relaxed and people traded in their more formal togas for the more relaxed synthesis (kind of like an uncomplicated dressing gown). They also donned a hat called a pileus, a peaked woolen hat which was normally reserved for emancipated slaves, perhaps to symbolize the sense of freedom generated by the holiday.

Feasting, drunkenness, and merrymaking were all encouraged - it was a festival of fertility after all, and those three things in conjunction often lead to conception. As to the contents of the feast, here is the "Bill of Fare of a Great Roman Banquet, 63 BCE" from Macrobius' Saturnalia:
"Before the dinner proper came sea hedgehogs; fresh oysters, as many as the guests wished; large mussels; sphondyli [this Latin word has multiple meanings in the work of Apicius (a classical glutton who wrote two cookbooks before his addiction to colossal banquets drove him to bankruptcy and suicide)- sometimes it means carrots or artichokes, other times it means mussels]; field fares with asparagus; fattened fowls; oysters and mussel pasties; black and white sea acorns; sphondyli again; glycimarides; sea nettles; becaficoes [a small bird, the Black Cap; usually "pickled or marinated", according to John Locke - yes, the tradition continued]; roe ribs; boar's ribs; fowls dressed with flour; becaficoes [again]; purple shellfish of two sorts. The dinner itself consisted of sow's udder; boar's head; fish-pasties; boar-pasties; ducks; boiled teals; hares; roasted fowls; starch pastry; Pontic pastry."

Some folks have theorized that Santa's pointy red hat might have its roots in the pileus. I'd like to add this idea to the similarity discussion: they wore a dressing gown and cap ("And I in my dressing gown and cap had just settled down for a long winter's nap.")

Note: The above information was researched for the sake of education and appreciation, in a hope to promote cross-cultural pollination, tolerance, and peaceful understanding. If I got anything wrong or missed anything, please feel free to comment. I love to learn and I'd like this to be as factual as possible.

No comments:

Post a Comment