"For how many years shall this festival abide! Never shall age destroy so holy a day! While the hills of Latium remain and father Tiber, while thy Rome stands and the Capitol thou hast restored to the world, it shall continue."
Conspicuous Consumption in Saturnalia as in Christmas
Around Christmas it's often difficult to separate commerce from religion. I want to do something different this year. Put up something other than a Christmas tree and creche to which the wooden wisemen move nearer each day. Maybe I'll wear a funny peaked cap, buy my friends beeswax candles -- useful gifts in the event of a power failure, let my son (as "Lord of Misrule") plan the day, and just maybe I'll celebrate it early... on December 17, the day of the Saturnalia.
The Increasing Period of Saturnalia Celebration
This Saturnalia problem may sound familiar. After all, stores put out their Christmas merchandise before Halloween these days.
The Saturnalia was originally celebrated in Ancient Rome for only a day, but it was so popular it soon it lasted a week, despite Augustus' efforts to reduce it to three days, and Caligula's, to five. Like our Christmas, this important holy day (feriae publicae) was for more than fun and games. Saturnalia was a time to honor the god of sowing, Saturn. But again, like our Christmas, it was also a festival day (dies festus) on which a public banquet was prepared. An effigy of the god was probably one of the guests.
Saturnalia Was the Best Part of the Roman Year
The poet Catullus describes Saturnalia as the best of days. It was a time of celebration, visits to friends, and gift-giving, particularly of wax candles (cerei), and earthenware figurines (sigillaria). The best part of the Saturnalia (for slaves) was the temporary reversal of roles. Masters served meals to their slaves who were permitted the unaccustomed luxuries of leisure and gambling. Clothing was relaxed and included the peaked woollen cap that symbolized the freed slave, which looks an awful lot like Santa Claus's peaked red hat . A member of the familia (family plus slaves) was appointed Saturnalicius princeps, roughly, Lord of Misrule.
Celebrate the Saturnalia in the 21st Century
I'm not alone in my desire to do something... old.
Bringing trees indoors to decorate is a modern custom. Nova Roma suggests decorating outdoor trees with sun and star symbols, and using swathes of greenery over doorways, windows, and on people. But Nova Roma emphasizes that decorations are secondary to revelry, feasting, drinking, merry-making, pranks, and gift-giving of Saturnalia. If you can get your friends and neighbors in the spirit, wrangle a parade permit from your municipality so you can dance (like a Roman) in the street.
Biblioteca Arcana's suggestions are for celebrating the religious aspects of the Saturnalia and its two adjoining holidays, the Opalia for Saturn's wife, Ops, goddess of plenty, and the Consualia for Consus, "god of the storage bin." The site provides a complete ritual with an equipment list, information on preparation, location, timing, the banquet, and the conclusion.