It was 2,518 years ago today when the first celebration was held in Rome, once Co-Consuls Aulus Semperonius Atraninus and Marcus Minicius Augurinius put their heads together to figure out how they could make Rome even more decadent, and they came up with a doozy,
Named after the Roman God Saturn and kicking off with a sacrifice at the Temple of Saturn in the Roman Forum, Saturnalia was 6 days of non-stop carousing, gift-giving, gambling, role-reversal of master and servant, and debauchery of every description (at which the imaginative Romans excelled).
People would constantly shout and greet one another with the phrase “io, Saturnalia,” short for “But you, Saturn, cast off your fetters and come near. You, too, December, tipsy from so much wine, and laughing Good Cheer and wanton Joviality, come and be present!” (Romans were apparently masters of abbreviation too.)
This wild celebration of Winter Solstice borrowed heavily from earlier cultures; Ancient Greece, Babylon and various pagan peoples, including the “mocking of the king” and martyrdom (sound familiar?). This annual extravaganza continued for over 800 years, until 313 AD when Emperor Constantine issued the Decree of Milan, making Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire.
So as not to annoy rank and file Romans, Constantine wisely kept Saturnalia as Rome’s biggest holiday, simply renaming it “Christ’s Mass,” declaring that Jesus Christ was born on December 25 and expanding the festival to 12 days.
Which is why we still carouse nonstop for 2 weeks, exchange gifts and engage in role reversal (Boxing Day) at Christmastime. Io, Saturnalia!
•Suggested Activities: Conspicuous consumption.