December 23, 2008

Io Saturnalia

Today marks the last day of the Roman holiday of Saturnalia, from which the modern Western European holiday of Christmas takes its descent. For three days beginning on the winter solstice, the masters of a household would serve the slaves, who would elect one of their number to be the Lord of Misrule. Men were subservient to women, slaves played at dice, and much wine was drunk and much sex was had by everyone.

Saturnalia was thought to serve an important moderating influence on Roman nobility -- because the slaves would be running the show for a while, the masters were reminded to be gentle and kind to them for the rest of the year. And giving the slaves a taste of the good life that they worked so hard the rest of the time to provide their masters was also thought be an important means of relief. It only ever went so far, of course; masters were always in charge and the disrespect shown to the masters was done with the same tongue-in-cheek tone of an actor at a theme restaraunt and no one was expected to take it seriously. The slaves still did all the real work; they prepared the food to be served at the dinner to themselves by their masters, and typically a good meal would be set aside for the masters in the kitchen.

Other customs included the exchange of gifts between friends and family members, feasting, public celebrations, and the worship of Saturn (who was the god of time and wealth). Later in Roman history, Saturnalia competed for attention with the festival of Sol Invictus, which took place on December 25 and adopted many of the customs of the Saturnalia, including the gift exchange and the day of leisure and feasting.

So Io Saturnalia to all you Readers; as a functional matter, we all still celebrate the holiday today despite the Christian gloss that has been placed over it. Also note that the conical red Phrygian caps worn during Saturnalia bear a startling resemblance to Santa caps worn today.

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