It’s beginning to look a lot like Saturnalia

Nowadays, I have a really difficult time getting into the Christmas spirit.  Maybe it’s because of how commercialism demands that Christmas carols play on the radio and in the stores before Halloween is over so people will blow more money.  I’m a firm believer in only celebrating one holiday at a time, and by the time Christmas arrives, I am completely burned out on the earworm tunes, the tacky Christmas lights, and the aggressive crowds.It's only November!

My solution?  Io, Saturnalia!

During high school and college, I took way more Latin than a person who doesn’t know that much Latin should admit to.  One of the reasons I stuck with it for so long is because I really enjoyed learning about Roman culture and mythology.  That’s when I learned about Saturnalia.

What is Saturnalia?
Saturnalia was the Roman festival for their god Saturn, a god of agriculture, freedom, and time.  It was traditionally celebrated on ante diem XVIII Kalendas Ianvarias (December 17th), but the official celebration continued until ante diem X Kalendas Ianvarias (December 23rd).  It included feasting, role reversal/social equality, and gift giving.  Also debauchery and orgies.

Saturnalia: They’re doing it right.

Saturnalia sounds awesome!  How can I celebrate Saturnalia?
I’m glad you asked.  Here are some ways that you can celebrate Saturnalia:

  • Take December 17-23 off of work.  If anyone gives you crap, tell them to stop oppressing you; not everyone celebrates Christmas and they need to respect your culture.  Try to keep a straight face when saying this.
  • Reverse roles to level the social playing field.  Bosses serve the employees, parents obey the children, and whomever wears the pants in your household should take them off and let the other person wear them.  Another part of this is that everyone should wear a pileus, which is a traditional Roman hat worn by freedmen.

    Pileus-Wearing Statue Guy
    This statue is wearing a pileus. The felt ones are much more comfortable than stone ones.
  • Decorate!  Saturnalia colors were blue and gold.  The symbols of Saturnalia include suns, moons, stars, and fertility symbols (yes, that means decorate your house with cutouts of boobs and penises).  You can use garlands and greenery, but you don’t have to set up a tree like for Christmas.  Instead, decorate the trees outside with ornaments of Saturnalia symbols.
  • Bake Saturnalia cookies!  Just make cookies but cut them into the shapes mentioned above.
  • Have a big feast.  Start with appetizers, a main course, and then desserts.  You can research and have something authentic-ish, or you can just make a lot of good food that you know you’ll like.  Also, make spiced wine or mulsum if you are of age and responsible with strong drink.  Also, in the spirit of role reversal, at this feast the masters serve the servants.
  • Gamble.
  • Give inexpensive gifts like cookies, small figurines, and candles.  Cheap gifts reinforce Saturnalia’s spirit of social equality, so don’t be snooty and pretentious by giving expensive gifts.  Gag gifts, however, are perfectly acceptable, and even encouraged.  Traditionally, the last day (December 23rd) is the day of gift giving.
  • One of the later Saturnalia traditions was appointing a Saturnalicius princeps or a “Prince of Saturnalia” who acts as the master of ceremonies and makes up ridiculous rules for people to follow.  This person should be chosen at random (draw names out of a pileus).  The rules he makes will depend on the company and how drunk you all are, but some good examples could be everyone has to speak in a Phoenician accent or everyone has to take a drink when someone says “Io, Saturnalia!”  If you can’t think of any rules on your own, try using some of the cards from the game Quelf.
  • Speak Latin!

For the last one, here are some good Latin phrases to know:

  • Io, Saturnalia! – This is the traditional greeting for Saturnalia.  It’s way better than “Merry Christmas” because it’s Latin.
  • salve! – hello!
  • quaeso – please
  • gratias – thanks
  • Monstra mihi tuas papillas. – You look lovely tonight. (Okay, maybe that’s not the real translation.)
  • me paenitet – I’m sorry.
  • vale! – goodbye!

If you can’t figure out how to pronounce the words, don’t sweat it too much.  Chances are nobody else will know the difference since Latin is a dead language.

Keep the Saturn in Saturnalia
Of course, Saturn was also known for eating his kids. I’m sure they had it comin’.

If you’re also a scrooge, consider trying Saturnalia on for size.  It also works for Christians and atheists alike who prefer to eat, drink, and be merry rather than join in the commercialized holiday rat race.  Also, if you honestly wish to show reverence to the god Saturn this might be your thing.  Feel free to leave a comment and gripe about holiday spirit, or tell me how much you love that Christmas starts in October, or, best of all, tell me about your Saturnalia plans!

16 thoughts on “It’s beginning to look a lot like Saturnalia

  1. 1. I have never been a big fan of Christmas. I actually threatened my kids with cancelling it tonight, and for a brief moment thought how awesome it would be to not have to DO ANYTHING.

    2. Husband and I don’t really buy each other gifts. We get stuff for the kids and my dad and that’s pretty much it.

    3. Fuck yeah, Saturnalia.


    1. We’re not really big on Christmas in my house either. I usually get my kids things they need and maybe one thoughtful gift that I know they’ll like. My wife usually plays the birthday-Christmas-anniversary-all-in-the-same-week card and cashes in by asking me for something really expensive. Otherwise, we don’t do a lot. It’s been nice being overseas for the holidays for the last few years because we don’t have to go drive all over the state of Indiana on deadly icy roads to visit everyone.

  2. In October when I’m still firmly in Halloween zone I don’t want to see blinking lights and inflatable reindeer. I avoid stores this time of year because my mind wants to explode when I hear Christmas music in November. Bah Humbug.

  3. Hahaha! You had me until the role reversal part–I will NOT give up the pants. Hahaha!


    (I don’t really like consumer holidays like xmas, either. Meh.)

    1. It seems like every holiday is accompanied by sales and ads. Valentine’s Day is one of the worst, and so is Halloween, now that I think of it. I guess there’s a reason why stores have a seasonal aisle that is always stocked with something for an upcoming holiday.

  4. This post made me laugh. Back when I lived in Cape Town they would play Christmas movies over and over, way before Christmas. To say that it annoyed me is an understatement. I don’t know how many times I watched Christmas with the Cranks or some crap like that. I took a mythology course at University and the stories were all crazy, the sex, the chaos, eating and puking up your own children…it was all insane. The same level of insanity that Christmas spirit brings it seems.

    1. Thanks! I’m glad you enjoyed the post. I’m a pretty big fan of all the crazy mythology stuff. It never occurred to me to think of it as strange when I was reading it, but when you put it like that, you’re pretty much right. It seemed like the gods were always cheating on their wives with girls that they turned into animals. It’s just like a work center holiday party.

  5. That Goya painting still makes me laugh. I first saw it in my Spanish class, we were discussing important artists from Spain. He has the look on his face that he is cheating on his diet and feels guilty.

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