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Merry…Feliz…Happy….io Saturnalia???

By Sharon Byrne

You’ve got to love those Romans. Even if you’ve never been to Rome, or it was totally boring to study ancient Roman history, Roman heritage is part of your life. In America, our founding fathers embraced the idea of the Roman republic in their framing of the (then) new American republic. E Pluribus Unum, and all that. We continue to elect Senators and representatives to government. Much of Roman common law evolved into British common law, and was then imported into what would become the American system of laws. Roman sewers, concrete, bridges, roads, heated baths and homes, and mass entertainment have got to appeal to your modern sensibilities. The Romans were first-rate political advertisers, so you can thank them when you scream over the deluge of ads in the next election. Emperor Julius created the Julian calendar, still in use today. Those of us speaking Italian, French, Spanish and Portuguese are using regional adaptations of Latin – the ancient language of the Romans, still in use in Catholic rituals, biology, and of course, the legal system.

But the Romans weren’t just builders and lawmakers. Some of their festivals and customs are still in use today. The most recognizable and widely celebrated is the Saturnalia, though you may not have ever heard of it by that name.

Saturn was the Roman god who reigned over death and rebirth, sowing and reaping (think agriculture, and the annual renewal of fields, planting cycles, and harvests), hard work, reversals, wealth and destruction.

That sounds like an early god of capitalism, doesn’t it?

Most of the Roman Empire was in Europe, and it gets dark there around 4 PM this time of year. That’s a bit depressing, so leave it to those hedonistic Romans to fix that problem! They invented the Saturnalia, running roughly from December 17th through December 25th. This period marks the start of Capricorn in the astrological year, with Saturn as Capricorn’s ruler. The winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, was important to the celebration.  People lit up candles en masse to symbolize the quest for knowledge and truth. Feasts, gifts, role reversals between master and slave, and lights marked the Saturnalia.

People gave gifts, mostly on December 23rd, and verses often accompanied these gifts, perhaps a precursor to the modern greeting card. Children got toys as gifts. No work was allowed during the high feast days, and an atmosphere of revelry prevailed.

Not everyone was thrilled with the Saturnalia:

Seneca wrote:

It is now the month of December, when the greatest part of the city is in a bustle. Loose reins are given to public dissipation; everywhere you may hear the sound of great preparations, as if there were some real difference between the days devoted to Saturn and those for transacting business.”

Pliny retreated to his Laurentine villa “especially during the Saturnalia when the rest of the house is noisy with the license of the holiday and festive cries. This way I don’t hamper the games of my people and they don’t hinder my work or studies.”

Perhaps these were early incarnations of Scrooge and the Grinch.

The renewal of light and the coming of the new year was celebrated in the later Roman Empire at the Dies Natalis of Sol Invictus, the “Birth of the Unconquerable Sun,” on December 25th. From this point on, the days would grow longer, and soon the warm summer days and harvests would return.

If this sounds a bit familiar, it should! It’s what we now celebrate as Christmas. Lest anxiety arise that this somehow conflicts with Christian teachings, please relax. Facing the Herculean task of converting people entirely happy with their present religion, thank you very much, early Christian leaders showed a particular genius in marketing and psychology. Long after the fall of Rome, it was clear people were not going to give up celebrating the Saturnalia, so the wise church fathers simply adopted the holiday as a Christian one, relabeled it, added new religious significance to it, and allowed to continue on to present day – a highly successful strategy in the spread of Christianity throughout the old Roman empire.

So enjoy the lights, festivities, presents, and everything those Romans handed down to us at this, the darkest time of the year. Issue whatever greetings you like: Merry Christmas! Happy Holidays! Happy Hannukah! Feliz Navidad! Cheers!

And send a nod to those ancient Romans with a hearty Io Saturnalia!

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