Saturnalia, the ancient pagan Roman festival from which many of our Christmas traditions spring, starts soon. And by “soon” I mean “tomorrow.”

From December 17th to December 23rd, the festival dedicated to the god Saturn goes on, and revelry and merrymaking can be expected in Roman villas and pagan communes.

Okay, I’m not sure about the Roman villas — something tells me that might not be the case — and as far as modern day celebrations of the holiday go, they’re few and far between. But that’s okay, because we’re bringing it back!

Saturnalia in a nutshell

“Help, I’m trapped in a nutshell!”

–Saturn, probably

Saturnalia: pagan festival of bad poetry and revelry. Also, merrymaking, gag gifts, role reversal, and drunken debauchery. (Though that last could refer to a lot of pagan celebrations, honestly.)

A candle in a lantern sits beside two wrapped gifts. The theme is winter and Christmas.
A large part of Saturnalia was the Sigillaria, or gift-giving. Sigillaria were small wax or pottery figurines made for the day, but other items would also be gifted, including candles and gag gifts.

Some key Saturnalia concepts:

  • Saturnalicius princeps, or “The King of Saturnalia”. Elected by lot, this person oversees the festivities and ceremonies. Likely continued as a Christmas tradition in the form of the Lord of Misrule.
  • Role reversal and behavioural license. Roles were reversed and the social hierarchy flattened during this festival, and there was liberty for free speech from slaves to criticize their masters.
  • Gambling, which anyone could partake in. Another example of the liberty of Saturnalia, as usually gambling was forbidden, or at least frowned upon.
  • The Sigillaria. A day for gift-giving, but with the twist of the season: the low intrinsic value of a gift is inversely proportional to the importance of the relationship. Verses sometimes accompanied gifts (a tradition thought to be carried on in our greeting cards), and bad poetry is famously associated with the holiday.

There is a lot more to ancient Saturnalia, but these key concepts will help you create your own modern-day Saturnalia festival, if you’re so inclined.

Io Saturnalia!

As part of my celebrations of Saturnalia this year, I’ve written a poem in honour of the holiday. I worked hard to capture the Saturnalian spirit with the poem. I hope you enjoy it.

Io Saturnalia!

Brightness wedged
among winter's darkened boughs--

Revelry, merrymaking, 
and our inner poet
to rouse.

Let a fool be king,
a CEO a wage-slave--

Misrule the day, 
give in to what you crave.

For it is Saturnalia,
a feast of light
in the dark

A time for bad poetry--
aardvark. 

Saturnalia: pagan festival of bad poetry and revelry. How will you celebrate?

Feeling inspired to join me in bringing Saturnalia back for our modern lives? Huzzah! The more the merrier.

If you’re still looking for inspiration, come on in to the shop! We’ve got (good) poetry books, in a nod to that classic gift of the season, as well as ideas and conversation.

Whatever you decide to do, we hope your season is merry and bright!

-Kat

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