December 17: Saturnalia!

SaturnaliaIt’s beginning to look a lot like Saturnalia; everywhere you go. Take a look in the Five and Ten, glistening once again with gambling dice and suckling pigs aglow!

Yes, it’s December 17, which as everybody knows marks the start of the Saturnalia festival. What, you’ve never heard of Saturnalia? Why, it’s only the reason for the December holiday season! Unfortunately, Saturnalia has lost a bit of popularity during the last 2000 years, largely because of the creation of the Christmas holiday, which heavily borrowed some of Saturnalia’s traditions. Well, since it seems you don’t know much about the holiday, maybe I should teach you how to have an exciting Saturnalia festival!

Saturnalia was all about egalitarianism and the reversal of social norms and was a call back to the mythic age when Saturn ruled over the Earth as an agricultural paradise. In fact, on the first three days of Saturnalia, all schools, businesses and courts were closed, allowing all to participate in the holiday fun. So, you’re going to want to take the day off. Just tell your boss that you’ve got a religious obligation to celebrate Saturn.

The Saturnalia celebration officially starts with a ritual at Saturn’s temples. Normally, the feet of the statue of Saturn had its feet bound in wool. However, on the first day of Saturnalia, the priests would remove the wool as an act of liberation. Sadly, there aren’t many temples honoring Saturn these days, but you can still perform the second major public ritual of the holiday: Setting up a  lectisternium, a depiction of a god, in this case a statue of Saturn, seated on a couch, making it look like he was taking part in the festivities. So, for your party, make a sculpture of Saturn and put it on your finest item of furniture.

Next, you should provide all of your guests with a pilleus, the felt cap that was worn by freedmen in Rome. During Saturnalia, all Romans; be they citizens, freedmen or slaves donned the pilleus, because during Saturnalia they were all free. In fact, slaves had special rights during the holiday; they could disobey and disrespect their masters without fear of punishment. Also, historical sources say it was a Saturnalia tradition for masters to either serve a grand feast to their slaves or to even have the slaves join them at the dinner table.

Speaking of which, the traditional Saturnalia meal was a suckling pig, so you’ll want to cook one of those up nice and plump for your guests. As for entertainment, do as the Romans did and celebrate by donning festive masks, reciting festive poetry, and playing games of chance because during Saturnalia gambling was legal. Oh, and don’t forget to exchange gifts. December 23, the last day of Saturnalia, was a day of gift giving between friends, family and loved ones. Many modern gift traditions go back to Saturnalia, as children would receive toys, employers would give their workers Saturnalia bonuses, and sometimes people would give gag gifts. Apparently, Emperor Augustus was a big fan of gag gifts and while his advisers would always give him something nice and lavish, he’d repay them with small, invaluable trinkets or on one occasion a collection of terrible poetry.

However, the secret to a great Saturnalia party is great drinks and plenty of them. A true Saturnalia celebration would feature all sorts of drinks, but might I suggest you make the Saturn your featured cocktail? Created by Huntington Beach based tiki bartender Popo Galsini, it’s a tasty tiki drink, but strangely enough, it’s not rum based but gin based.


  • 1 1/4 ounces Gin
  • 1/2 ounce passion fruit syrup
  • 1/4 ounce Velvet Falernum
  • 1/4 ounce orgeat syrup
  • 1/2 ounce lemon juice

Shake with ice and strain into an Old Fashioned glass with crushed ice; garnish with a mint sprig.

Tomorrow: Herr Drosselmeyer brings us a gift.


2 responses

  1. […] and masters exchanged roles and cross dressing was acceptable. Basically, it was a lot like Saturnalia. So, Shakespeare’s play (which might have premiered on Twelfth Night, 1602) naturally involves a […]

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