Today marks the start of Saturnalia, an ancient Roman festival in honor of the god Saturnus. 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 switched places (much like the Lord of Misrule in medieval celebrations).
Saturnalia was introduced around 217 BCE to raise morale after a crushing military defeat at the hands of the Carthaginians. Originally celebrated for a day on December 17th, 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 they get the reputation of being hell-raisers?), but these attempts caused uproar and revolt among the Roman citizens.
Saturnalia involved the conventional sacrifices, a couch (lectisternium) set out in front of the temple of Saturnus and the untying of the ropes that bound the statue of Saturnus during the rest of the year. A Saturnalicius princeps was elected master of ceremonies for the proceedings and, besides the public rites, there were a series of holidays and customs celebrated privately – including a school holiday, the making and giving of small presents (saturnalia et sigillaricia) and a special market (sigillaria). And 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 like a fez) was worn by everyone. Slaves were exempt from punishment and treated their masters with (a pretense of) disrespect, celebrating a banquet before, with, or served by the masters. Yet the reversal of the social order was mostly superficial – the banquet would often be prepared by the slaves and they would prepare their masters’ dinner as well. It was license within careful boundaries, reversing 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”).
Saturnus was the Roman god of agriculture and harvest whose reign was described as a Golden Age of abundance and peace by many authors. In medieval times, he was known as the Roman god of dance, agriculture, justice and strength, often portayed holding a sickle or scythe in one hand and a bundle of wheat in the other. Saturnus is sometimes identified with the Greek Cronus, the god of Time (hence chronological, chronic, &c.) who famously ate his children. Fear not, the children were later regurgitated intact through the intervention of their mother and went on to become the gods of Olympus! A gruesome tale, yet viewed metaphorically it can be seen as a simple moral – that Time eats everything in the end.
Saturday is sacred to Saturnus.