Welcome to an unusual stop on the indieBRAG Christmas bloghop!
Throughout December, the B.R.A.G.Medallion authors are presenting readers with a seasonal blog tour.
In the UK and most of the Western world, we celebrate Christmas on 25 December. But ancient Romans started their festival on 17 December – today!
Saturnalia was THE most important Roman festival. Heavy on feasting, fun and gifts, it was originally celebrated in ancient Rome for only a day around 17 December but it was so popular it expanded into a week or even longer, despite Augustus’ efforts to reduce it to three days, and Caligula’s, to five.
Like today’s Christmas, this holy day (feria publica) had a serious origin: to honour the god of sowing, Saturn. But also like modern Christmas, it was a festival day (dies festus). After sacrifice at the temple, there was a public banquet, which Livy says was introduced in 217 BC. Afterwards, according to the poet Macrobius, the celebrants shouted ‘Io, Saturnalia‘ at a riotous public feast in the temple.
Modern mid-winter habits today echo Roman conspicuous eating and drinking, and visiting friends and giving gifts, particularly of wax candles (cerei), and earthenware figurines (sigillaria). But there were also some particularly Roman customs.
Masters served meals to their slaves who were permitted the unaccustomed luxuries of leisure and gambling. A member of the familia (family plus slaves) was appointed Saturnalicius princeps, roughly equivalent to the medieval Lord of Misrule. Standard clothing was replaced by bright, if not positively gaudy ones, the more eye-wateringly bright the better.
The Roman poet Catullus describes Saturnalia as ‘the best of days’ while Seneca complains that the ‘whole mob has let itself go in pleasures’. Pliny the Younger writes that he retired to his room while the rest of the household celebrated. Sound familiar?
In my Roma Nova books (all B.R.A.G. Medallion honorees) set in an imaginary country which has kept Roman customs and values, Saturnalia is, like Christmas, a holiday that everybody frets the whole of December preparing for but enjoys when it finally arrives. And the Roma Novans in the 21st century have kept up most of the traditions.
But one Saturnalia, the Mitela family was scattered and bad weather threatened both public and private celebrations. One small boy was stranded… If you enjoy a short story, click here to read ‘Saturnalia surprise’ and find out what happened.
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