Saturnalia Practices of Nova Romans

Saturnalia falls at the time when non-Romans are celebrating Christmas, Hanukkah, Solstice and/or Kwanzaa. In Nova Roma, individual Citizens have chosen different approaches to the challenge of celebrating in the spirit of Rome without cutting themselves off from the culture in which they live.

This page is a compilation of Saturnalia celebrations reported by Nova Romans:

First, a little history
Flavia Claudia Juliana: Saturnalia festivities began with ritual and sacrifices in the Temple of Saturn. The statue of the god was hollow and filled with olive oil, as a symbol of his agricultural functions. His feet were bound with woolen strips, that were unbound at Saturnalia.

After the rituals, the Senators (who had to be present) dismissed the crowd with the cry of "Io, Saturnalia!", a sign for the happy festivities of family parties and other private gatherings to begin. The traditional gifts were wax tapers and little dolls, although gifts of silver later became traditional.

The custom of the Lord of Misrule was appropriated and survived through to English Christmas traditions.

Roman decorations and celebrations Secunda Floria Zonara: Many of the decorations involved greenery - swathes, garlands, wreaths, etc - being hung over doorways and windows, and ornamenting stairs. Ornaments in the trees included sun symbols, stars, and faces of the God Janus. Trees were not brought indoors (the Germans started that tradition), but decorated where they grew.

Food was also a primary decoration - gilded cakes in a variety of shapes were quite popular, and children and birds vied for the privilege of denuding the trees of their treats. The commonest shapes were fertility symbols, suns and moons and stars, baby shapes, and herd animal shapes (although, to be honest, it's hard to tell if some of those ancient cookie cutters are supposed to be goats or deer). I would imagine coins were also a popular decoration/gift.

People were just as likely to be ornamented as the trees. Wearing greenery and jewelry of a sacred nature was apparently common, based on descriptions, drawings, and the like from the era. Although the emphasis was on Saturn, Sol Invictus got a fair share of the revelry as well.

Gold, because the sun is yellow, is always a sure choice for a good Saturnalia decoration. For modern Saturnalia, those golden glass ball ornaments are ideal, as are gold sun faces, gold stars, and gilded anythings. Gilding nuts and pine cones and nestling them among the swags and wreaths of greenery would be a lovely way of acknowledging the ancient roots of this ceremony.

Indoor trees are not ancient Roman, but if you have plants growing indoors, decorating them would certainly be in the spirit of the holidays. If you just have to have the now-traditional indoor tree, try decorating it in gold ornaments with a solar theme. Swathe it in bright red or purple ribbons (2 colors quite in favor with the Romans, and looks great with the gold ornaments). Top the tree with a sun, rather than a star, for after all, this is a solar celebration.

The biggest part of Saturnalia was attitude more than decoration. Feasting, drunkenness, merrymaking, hopefully the conception of more children (or at least enjoying those activities which led to conception!), pranks, gift giving, role reversals (not true ones, only symbolic ones - slaves weren't really free to make a freedman's decisions and anything they did or decreed would reverse at the end of Saturnalia, children weren't really adults and could not enter into any binding contracts or make business deals, etc.) and so forth.

The role reversals seemed to be more for minor privileges - slaves and children got to be waited on for meals, and to lead the rituals, and to participate in the revelry as if they were their parents/masters. The parents/masters jokingly played the part of slaves and children by waiting on them and making rude and bawdy jokes at their expense. Sometimes, it descended into cruelty.

On a modern note - wild parties with lots of food and drink is good. Letting the children of the household lead the common rituals, and waiting on them (assuming you don't do so in everyday circumstances....) at mealtimes, and deferring to them in decisions on party ideas would work for role reversals.

No children in the house? Maybe you can borrow one for a day. We don't have slaves, but, for a nice touch of role reversal, we could purchase the services of a nanny or a housekeeper for the duration of Saturnalia. It would be a role reversal of sorts, for instead of being the slave of your home, someone else would be doing the chores and cooking and childcare while you got to party down!

Dancing and singing in the streets is now frowned upon, unless you can get a parade permit. A parade, if you could organize it, would be fun. Imagine - giant floats of the Gods tended by the priests and acolytes, musicians and dancers, contortionists to amaze and delight, acrobats and jugglers, all in honor of Saturn!

Dog's world turned upside-down
Damianus Lucianus Dexippus: Since the festival runs for seven days, I plan to do something wild on each day. Unfortunately I have to work, but I plan on spreading good cheer throughout the office by wearing loud clothes (well...more loud than usual) and a different Renaissance hat each day (have lots from the Ren Fairres). I usually feed my dog after I have had during that week, little Artemis will receive her food first.

Oh, and I'm trying to work in an orgy ...

Bacchus and books
Quintus Fabius Maximus: Since most of my friends know I'm a Roman Historian, I got:

I also got some Byzantine books and Xenophon's novel "Cyropaedia" (Life of Cyrus the Great.)

Friends who came to my party brought not one, not two, but 3 Bacchuses!! Statues, that is. I also got a HUGE plaque of the Forum in relief, 62" x 40" as a gift.

Saturnalia with a little girl
Amethystia Iunia Crystallina: You'll have to forgive me, but this is really the first Saturnalia that I have either *cared* about or been allowed to do what I wanted for the Saturnalia. I am just so excited I am probably going to go nuts and share every minute.

Last night I got things ready for this first Saturnalia morning. I gave the house special attention in cleaning and went into the kids' (I think of it as 'their' room, even though Lapis will not be born until February and both of them will be sleeping with me, for a while anyway) playroom closet to pick out the gift Terry would get this morning. I decided on her dry-erase board and markers from me and the puzzle book my mother sent for her.

I put the board and the markers out, kept the puzzle book apart, so she wouldn't get overwhelmed and tried to sleep. Terry woke me at 8 with her usual happy talk and demands for juice. She got out of bed and drank and wandered into the living room, where she discovered her present. She drew on the board and herself (I showed her how to draw on the board, she showed herself the other). I brought out the puzzle book, and showed her how it worked. She is having the time of her little life, which is all the gift I could ever want!

We aren't rich, but I wanted *her* to feel rich, if only for one week.

Friday, the second day of Saturnalia, brought Terry her talking Winnie the Pooh book. She liked it so much I had to pack it in the diaper bag when we went to the senior center. I dressed her in winter white -- a pair of pants and a nice top all winter white with a sort of leafy pattern in gold on it. I put her hair in a pony tail and tied it with a scrap of golden material I made into a nice hair ribbon.

Terry was a wonderful hit at the senior center!! She walked to every table and looked and smiled at everyone. I think this will be a nice tradition for us every year. The local eighth-graders came to sing carols to the seniors and Terry looked with rapt attention as they sang. She, as usual, fought her nap (but she was surrounded by her subjects, allplaying Hail Toddler, so it is sort of understandable)...

Out of 9 days, Terry receives presents on 8 (must be nice, huh?).

Relinquishing the boss's role
Quintus Fabius: Tomorrow and Friday, Bandwagon Productions will be run by the assistants. Hopefully, we will lose no major deals because of this. However, my assistants love this holiday now. Monday I have a big meeting, so it's only for two days, this year. My partners think I am crazy.

Red and gold
Mia: We've decorated everything in red and gold, since we pretty much celebrate this as a strictly and directly solar holiday. We have a gold star at the top of our tree-wannabe, but we reason that the sun is, after all, a star, and it was a good $5 cheaper than the sunburst-style tree topper. It all seems to fit nicely into the Saturnalia theme too.

My husband is all in favor of getting some wine and starting Saturnalia out on the right foot... I am more in favor of him taking me out to a restaurant. :)

Circle of Saturn
Damianus Lucianus Dexippus: As the Muse would have it, I was sitting around thinking of a way to acknowledge each of the days of the Saturnalia festival. Being of the modern age with our Pagan-unfriendly bosses making us work during this Festive Holiday and scrambling to buy gifts for both Pagan and non-Pagan friends and family, how can we take a few moments to honor each day of the Saturnalia, whether or not we plan festivities for the whole week?

Well...I came up with this. I went to the store after work and bought seven small candleholders. (The ones I bought are real seasonal. They are made of brass with little pine-cones, holly berries, and red ribbons tied around them). I also bought seven red candles. When I got home, I placed some pine branches (yes...left over from the Yule Log decorations) on my permanent altar where I do my meditations and prayers. Then I encircled the seven candle holders around the center of the altar.

Each day I plan to offer a prayer to Saturnus and Ops and light a candle for that day's festivities. It's kinda like a Pagan Menorah. At the end of the seven days, the Circle of Saturn will be completely ablaze.

Life, death and a Yule log
Damianus Lucianus Dexippus: I went to one of the Tree Butcheries and asked for one of the trunks they may have cut off to size it for the picky families. It's a nice size log. So I brought it home and placed it on a bed of pine branches (also taken from the butchery). I adhered three candles to the log (one white, one red, and one green) to symbolize the cycle of life, death, and rebirth. I decorated the log and branches with red beads and lights.

This is my Yule Log. Without a fire place to burn it traditionally, I thought the candles made an acceptable Neo-Pagan adaption. I'm planning a small ritual on December 22 where I will light the candles to remind me of the Sun's rebirth (white candle) and the promise of new beginnings and hope in the new year, the fulfillment of oaths and deeds during the year (the red candle...symbolizing the Sun at its zenith), and the time of meditation and contemplation (the green candle ...symbolizing the Sun at its rest, its return to the underworld).

Welcoming door
Marcus Minucius Audens: As I understand it, most of the Saturnalia decorations are very much up to you (and your pocketbook) and a logical outlook on the season. The Yule Log, the tree, ornanments and decorations that today's Christians use were brought from elsewhere and are acceptable (except maybe for the angel at the top of the tree). Candles and candle decorations with bright colors, ribbons or strips of brightly colored cloth hung in decorative shapes. Decorative hangings and festive table decorations were well thought of. Don't forget the family shrine or gods, offerings of cakes and wine should be made and the decorations here should also reflect your house decorations.

Candles in the windows are supposed to be a New England idea, but I suspect that a candle(s) in the portico were used as luminaria are used many places today. Home made dishs of flower petals and buds with lingering aroma, put a pan of apple juice / cider on the stove to heat gently and use apple pie spice in the juice to give the house a wonderful odor. (Falernian wine heavily spiced is veryyyyyy good too.) I'm sure a half dozen of Venator's "Fire Cherries" will make you think more clearly than ever before (but reserve time for a nap later).

The house should be warm, with warm blankets or comforters at convenient places, and should smell good and should reflect your own festive ideas. When things all come together. You will "feel" that it is right. I like "one color themes" where blue, or red or silver predominate in a window scene or the decoration of a door.

One prominent door in my house is the "Greeting Door" where all the greetiings of Saturnalia are placed. Little incense cones burning at the shrine or in small decorative dishes around the house help with good smells. Evergreen and bright berries like holly and mistletoe, as well as any plants or trees in your area that smells or looks good. Our laurel here in Connecticut stays green all year and can be made into a nice decoration. Colored paper cut into nice designs can be used.

Don't forget the cookies and sweetbreads either, and try to make time to bake something every day. Most important is the enjoyment. You must schedule a time for just sitting and enjoying your decorated place be it a castle or a cave or anything in between, You should be the one to enjoy your creation the most.

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