When it comes to festivals, parties, and downright debauchery, no one beats the folks of ancient Rome. Around the time of the winter solstice each year, they celebrated the festival of Saturnalia. As the name implies, this was a holiday in honor of the agricultural god, Saturn. This week-long party typically began around December 17th, so that it would end right around the day of the solstice.
Fertility rituals were performed at the temple of Saturn, including sacrifices. In addition to the large public rites, many private citizens held ceremonies honoring Saturn in their homes.
One of the highlights of Saturnalia was the switching of traditional roles, particularly between a master and his slave. Everyone got to wear the red pileus, or freedman's hat, and slaves were free to be as impertinent as they wished to their owners. However, despite the appearance of a reversal of social order, there were actually some fairly strict boundaries. A master might serve his slaves dinner, but the slaves were the ones who prepared it -- this kept Roman society in order, but still allowed everyone to have a good time.
Businesses and court proceedings closed up for the entire celebration, and food and drink were everywhere to be had. Elaborate feasts and banquets were held, and it wasnât unusual to exchange small gifts at these parties. A typical Saturnalia gift might be something like a writing tablet or tool, cups and spoons, clothing items, or food. Citizens decked their halls with boughs of greenery, and even hung small tin ornaments on bushes and trees. Bands of naked revelers often roamed the streets, singing and carousing - a sort of naughty precursor to today's Christmas caroling tradition.
The traditional greeting at a Saturnalia celebration is, "Io, Saturnalia!", with the "Io" being pronounced as "Yo." So next time someone wishes you a happy holiday, feel free to respond with "Io, Saturnalia!" After all, if you lived in Roman times, Saturn was the reason for the season!