This is the traditional greeting for Romans at this time of year, (the Io pronounced Yo!) When it comes to partying, noone does it quite like the Romans. Saturnalia was an ancient Roman festival honouring the god of agriculture Saturn, held on the 17th of December and continuing through to the winter solstice. In fact it’s still popular in Deva (Chester.)
Saturnalia was celebrated with a public ceremony followed by private celebrations in the home, where the traditional roles were switched. A Lord of Misrule was chosen; masters waited upon their slaves (although the slaves had prepared the food, beforehand). Everyone got to wear colourful clothes and the red pilleus, or freedman’s hat; gambling was allowed and normal business was suspended during the holiday period. Elaborate feasts and banquets were held; candles were lit and it wasn’t unusual to exchange small gifts such as wax candles, oil lamps, small earthenware figures, small writing tablets, cups,spoons, items of clothing or food. Citizens decked their halls with green boughs, and even hung small tin ornaments on bushes and trees. Bands of revelers often roamed the streets, singing and carousing. The poet Catullus called it “the best of days.”
Thinking about the school Christmas dinner tradition this week, where everyone wears a hat and colourful clothes, teachers serve dinner to their students, the hall is decorated with greenery, ornaments hang from the tree and music plays, it’s not that far removed from Saturnalia.
Holding a Saturnalia party is a great way to round off the term with students studying Latin. I have often helped local primary schools round off their topic work on the Romans at this time of year by teaching them a bit of Latin, making some Roman food and pilleus hats and recreating a carnival procession with singing. Obviously, we all dressed up and had a thoroughly good time.
I would urge all homeschoolers and primary teachers to do the same. Partying just like the Romans is a great way to reinforce learning. Preparations for the party involve research into Roman costume and hairstyles, worship of gods and goddesses, slavery, festivals, food, the role of women… And the sites and smells of Saturnalia will stay with your students long after the ink has dried on the page of their workbooks.