During the dark days of December, in many mainline schools, students will be heard exclaiming the celebration “IO SATURNALIA!” », A bugle call throughout the centuries of the Roman feast of Saturnalia.
The commemoration originated in ancient Rome in honor of an early god-king named Saturn who was renowned for the goodwill and prosperity of his reign.
According to tradition, the ancient Romans honored Saturn as the god of seed and sowing after the fall sowing was finished.
In Cicero’s time, the Saturnalia lasted seven days. Emperor Augustus, however, limited the celebrations to three days so that civil courts did not have to be closed for an extended period.
As part of tradition, Roman men replaced the formal toga with a loose garment called synthesis, and slaves were treated as equals by their masters in homage to the alleged political freedom and the general mirth of the celebration.
Through the ages, the legendary feast in honor of Saturn has acquired various customs and traditions, many of which were adopted by early Christians and still persist today.
The usual use in December of red and green, representing foliage and perennial berries, dates back to the Roman Saturnalia. During the festival, the Romans decorated their homes with evergreen wreaths, called sertae, bearing red berries.
The exchange of gifts, the singing of songs and the dedication of specific foods at meals, all characterized the festival.
According to Macrobe, the Saturnalia celebration continued with the Sigillaria, so named for the small terracotta figurines that were sold in Roman shops and given as gifts to children.
In 1899, Emile Thomas wrote in Roman Life Under the Caesars: “These statuettes were frequently made in the image of a deity, such as Hercules, Minerva, Apollo Sauroctonus, Victory, or of a famous mythological character, for example Danäe or Hyacinthus.
“These sigils were sometimes made of clay, in which case their value was insignificant, unless the workmanship possessed unusual merit; those made of marble, Corinthian bronze, silver or gold, however, were often of considerable value.
The Temple of Saturn, considered by many to be the oldest Roman temple recorded in the annals of the pontiffs, was dedicated to the Saturnalia. After the sacrifice in the temple of Saturn, the celebrants enjoyed a public banquet, then walked out into the streets shouting the holiday salute “IO Saturnalia!” So that everyone can hear it.
The Saturnalia were the occasion to party, visit friends and present gifts, including cerei, wax candles, and again, sigillaria, clay dolls.
The ancient Romans also celebrated the solstitium, or winter solstice, roughly halfway between the Ides of December (December 13) and the Calends of January (January 1), corresponding to our winter solstice on December 21. .
In fact, the exchange, permutatio, of wax candles is believed to symbolize Sol Invictus, the undefeated sun, as part of the winter solstice tradition. It seems, however, that in the 2nd century CE, Brumalia, the celebration of the winter solstice, replaced the Saturnalia for some time.
Thus, around the middle of the 4th century AD, many customs of the ancient Saturnalia were adapted to the celebration of Christmas. Nevertheless, the Saturnalia has been the most popular holiday of the Roman year for centuries.
In fact, the poet Catullus once described the festival as “the best of days”.
The ancient Saturnalia and many of its customs survive to the present day both in Rome and in modern Latin classes. Students will often exchange candles as symbols of the season and commemorate the old festival with cakes and special foods.
So if you are lucky enough to occasionally hear an “IO SATURNALIA! Exclaimed by your favorite Latin student during the week before Christmas, know that you are welcome to commemorate the ancient Roman feast of peace, goodwill and harmony.
Mary Brown, adjunct professor of Latin at Saint Joseph’s University, is president of the Philadelphia Classical Society and executive director of the Classical Association of the Atlantic States.