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'Io Saturnalia!' heralds Ancient Roman fest

By Mary Brown

During the week preceding Christmas, in many secondary schools throughout the Main Line, students will be heard exclaiming the celebratory “Io Saturnalia,” a herald of the centuries-old festival of the Saturnalia. The commemoration originated in ancient Rome in honor of an early king-god named Saturnus who was renowned for the goodwill and prosperity of his reign.
According to tradition, the ancient Romans honored Saturnus, the god of seed and sowing, after the autumn planting was completed. In Cicero’s time, the Saturnalia lasted seven days. Augustus, however, limited the celebrations to three days so the civil courts would not have to be closed for an extended time.
As part of the tradition, Roman men replaced the toga with a loose-fitting garment called a synthesis and slaves were treated as equals by their masters as a tribute to the supposed general merriment of the celebration.
Through the ages, the fabled festival in honor of Saturnus had acquired various customs and traditions, many of which were adopted by the early Christians and persist to the current day.
Our customary use in December of red and green, representing perennial foliage and berries, dates back to the Roman Saturnalia. During the festival, the Romans decorated their homes with evergreen wreaths, called serta, bearing red berries. The exchange of gifts, the singing of songs, and the dedication of specific foods at meals, all characterized the holidays.
According to Macrobius, the celebration of the Saturnalia was extended with the Sigallaria, so named for the small earthenware figurines which were sold in Roman shops and given as gifts to children.
The Temple of Saturnus, thought by many to be the oldest Roman temple recorded by the pontiffs, had been dedicated on the Saturnalia. After sacrifice in the Temple of Saturnus, the celebrants would enjoy a public banquet, then go out to the streets shouting the holiday greeting “IO Saturnalia!” for all to hear.
The Saturnalia was an occasion for celebration, visits to friends, and the presentation of gifts, particularly cerei, wax candles, and sigillaria, clay dolls.
The ancient Romans also celebrated the solstitium, or winter solstice, at the approximate mid-way point between the Ides of December (Dec. 13) and the Kalends of January (Jan. 1), corresponding to our Winter Solstice on Dec. 21.
In fact, it is thought that the exchange, permutatio, of wax candles symbolized Sol Invictus, the unconquered sun, as part of the winter solstice tradition. It appears, however, that by the second century A.D., Brumalia, the winter solstice celebration, replaced the Saturnalia.
Hence, by the middle of the 4th century A.D., many customs of the old Saturnalia were adapted to the celebration of Christmas. Nevertheless, the Saturnalia was the most popular holiday of the Roman year for centuries. In fact, the poet Catullus described the festival as “the best of days.”
The ancient Saturnalia and many of its customs survive to the present day both in Rome and in modern-day Latin classes. Students will often exchange candles as symbols of the season, and commemorate the ancient festival with special cakes and foods.
So if you chance to hear an occasional “Io Saturnalia!” exclaimed by your favorite Latin student during the week before Christmas, know that you are welcomed to commemorate the ancient Roman festival of peace, goodwill, and harmony.
Mary Brown, a resident of Wynnewood who teaches Latin at Valley Forge Military Academy, is the President of the Philadelphia Classical Society and the Executive Director of the Classical Association of the Atlantic States.