Io, Saturnalia!


The customary greeting of the Roman winter holiday season sounded like “Yo, Saturnalia!” (The latin word “io” is the equivalent of the prayerful “Ho” in ecclesiastical English, as in “Ho, praise to Saturn.”) Saturnalia was a carnivalesque winter festival celebrating the god Saturn’s birthday and it encompassed the winter solstice, running from December 17 – 23rd. The riotous Saturnalia, which several emperors including Caligula tried unsuccessfully to curtail, involved many rituals later subsumed into the traditions of Western Christmas such as intense decorating, family feasts, parades, pageants and gift-giving. It also featured classic carnival rituals including the reversal of class roles with slaves dressing as masters and masters dressing as slaves. Slaves could not be punished for the duration of the holiday and they made a pretense of treating their masters with disrespect. Gambling was legal for everyone, including slaves, and schools were let out for the holiday. Alcohol was heavily featured, and swaths of greenery decorated the house, exterior and interior and table. Apart from the slavery reversal component, much of this will sound familiar to most people who celebrate Christmas. Saturnalia and many equivalent so-called pagan festivals in the northern hemisphere all celebrated the return of the sun to the land with feasts and some or other form of celebration. The tree, the decorations, candles, the garland, holly, flying reindeer or other animals, and gift-giving ALL stem from various of these winter festivals. In Greece, the corresponding December festival was the Dionysia which celebrated the harvest of the grapevines and the somewhat raunchy fertility of the wine god Dionysius (the Roman equivalent was a Bacchanalia after Dionysius’ Roman counterpart Bacchus). Interesting fact: the early American Puritan colonists banned Christmas from their colonies, because it was considered sinful. Io Saturnalia!

Saturnalia painting from here.

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