Weird Wednesdays: Roman holiday

It's Weird Wednesday! Time to learn about how the holiday season was celebrated in the Roman times. (johnnytsunami/Flickr, Creative Commons)

December is right around the corner! That means it’s time to break out the lights, turn up the music, light same candles and free your slaves.

What? You don’t have slaves? Do you have an unpaid intern, at least? That’ll do. Dec. 17 through 23 (or 25, depending on your calendar) marks the ancient Roman holiday of Saturnalia, a religious festival whose elements have been transferred over to modern Christmas celebrations.

Ancient Rome, particularly during its empire stages, was a riot. Think a fraternity rolled into a cast party for “Cabaret” with just a hint of “Game of Thrones.” Saturnalia was somewhat a culmination of this.

On Saturnalia, everything was topsy-turvy. Slaves were served dinner by their masters and gambled in the streets like free men. Citizens ditched their togas and wore fancy dinner clothing everywhere. Cries of “Io, Saturnalia!” (“Hail, Saturnalia!”) filled the air.

People gave gifts, told jokes and asked each other riddles. Oh, and they got drunk. Incredibly, stupidly, it’s-the-end-of-the-semester-I-have-nothing-to-live-for drunk.

In other words, it was a week-long party.

Saturnalia was both a harvest festival (Roman autumns ran late in the year because of the temperate climate) and a celebration of the winter solstice, which signaled the end of the lengthening night.

Additionally, it was a celebration of the god Saturn himself. For those of you who didn’t take Latin or read the “Percy Jackson” series, Saturn was the first god, a titan born of Gaea (Mother Earth) and Ouranos (Father Sky). Supposedly, during his reign over the earth, all men lived free and the land was bountiful and peaceful.

Of course, Saturn was also a bit of a jerk. He ended up slaying his father with a sickle up and ate all his children after hearing that his own son was destined to kill him. The main point of the festival was to replicate this supposedly ‘peaceful’ time, where all men were equal and man’s existence was for the purpose of celebration-- hence the gift-giving and slave role-reversal. Why they didn’t try and have this mentality year-round is beyond me, though it was probably because the Romans liked having free, human-rights-violating labor.

Saturnalia has several elements of modern-day celebrations, not just Christmas. One of thebawdier parts of the festival involved the Saturnalicius princeps, the rex (king) of Saturnalia. Hewas basically a master of ceremonies and an entertainment source, as he ordered around his fellows around and made them do very silly things, such as singing, dancing or acting as footstools. The Feast of Fools, Mardi Gras and Carnevale all, ultimately adopted this aspect.

It wasn’t always this way. Saturnalia used to be a more solemn day with specific rituals and protocols. However, during the Second Punic War after Rome suffered a devastating defeat to

Carthage that changed. As a way to appease to the Carthaginian slaves already in Rome, roles were reversed and more Greek, cultish elements were introduced. Roman excess also appeared.

Later on, as Christianity took over and became Rome’s official state religion it did what it does and integrated local traditions into its own belief system, which made it easier for die-hard Romans (and partiers) to convert.

Overall, the Romans know how to throw a party-- and next time you complain about your Great-Aunt Millie getting smashed at the family Christmas bash, well, you know who to blame.


Marlese Lessing is the news editor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at marlese.lessing@uconn.edu. She tweets @marlese_lessing.