St. Nicholas

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Advent Calendar for Grown-ups

by Paul Bommer

DECEMBER 17 Saturnalia


Illustration by Paul Bommer
Used by permission

To-day marks the start of Saturnalia, an Ancient Roman festival that was held in honor of the god Saturn.

Saturnalia became one of the most popular Roman festivals. It was marked by tomfoolery, mayhem, merriment and the reversal of social roles, in which slaves and masters ostensibly switched places (much like the Lord of Misrule in later Medieval Christian celebrations).

Saturnalia was introduced around 217 BCE to raise citizen morale after a crushing military defeat at the hands of the Carthaginians. Originally celebrated for a day, on December 17 (to-day!), its popularity saw it grow until it became a week-long extravaganza, ending on the 23rd. Efforts to shorten the celebration were unsuccessful. Augustus tried to reduce it to three days, and Caligula to five (Party poopers! How did these guys get the reputation of being Hell-raisers?). These attempts caused uproar and massive revolts among the Roman citizens.

Saturnalia involved the conventional sacrifices, a couch (lectisternium) set out in front of the temple of Saturn and the untying of the ropes that bound the statue of Saturn during the rest of the year. A Saturnalicius princeps was elected master of ceremonies for the proceedings. Besides the public rites there were a series of holidays and customs celebrated privately. The celebrations included a school holiday, the making and giving of small presents (saturnalia et sigillaricia) and a special market (sigillaria). Gambling was allowed for all, even slaves.

Saturnalia was a time to eat, drink, and be merry. The toga was not worn, but rather colorful and informal 'dinner clothes;' and the pileus (a freedman's hat: close-fitting and brimless, a little like a fez) was worn by everyone. Slaves were exempt from punishment, and treated their masters with (a pretense of) disrespect. The slaves celebrated a banquet: before, with, or served by the masters. Yet the reversal of the social order was mostly superficial; the banquet, for example, would often be prepared by the slaves, and they would prepare their masters' dinner as well. It was license within careful boundaries; it reversed the social order without subverting it.

The customary greeting for the occasion is a "Io, Saturnalia!"—Io (pronounced "e-o") being a Latin interjection related to "ho" (as in "Ho, praise to Saturn").

Saturn (Latin: Saturnus) was a major Roman god of agriculture and harvest, whose reign was depicted as a Golden Age of abundance and peace by many Roman authors. In medieval times he was known as the Roman god of dance, agriculture, justice and strength; he is often portayed holding a sickle or scythe in one hand and a bundle of wheat in the other. Saturn is often identified with the Greek Cronus, the god of Time (hence chronological, chronic, etc.) who famously ate his children. Fear not though, gentle readers, the children were later regurgitated intact through the intervention of their mother—and went on to become the Gods of Olympus! A gruesome tale perhaps, but viewed metaphorically it can be seen as a simple moral—that Time eats everything in the end.

I have shown old Saturnus in his chariot pulled by winged serpents, wearing his purple robes and party pileus and brandishing his scythe. The roundels on his chariot depict the star-signs Capricorn and Aquarius which he governs. Flying like this through the Winter sky he puts me in mind of a Classical Santa Claus—I did think about labelling his serpents Cometa and Vulpes (Comet & Vixen) or Saltor and Cupido (Dancer & Cupid) as a homage to 'A Visit From St. Nick,' but I wasn't sure my Latin was up to the task!

Saturday is sacred to Saturn.

Io Saturnalia!

From Paul Bommer: Illustration, design & Print-making. Used by permission.

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