Two thousand years ago Romans didn’t hold back celebrating. Especially during December.
According to a book I’ve just read, Roman Timetable by Simon James Young, here is a list of Roman festivals just for December:
3/12/11 – Bona Dea (the good goddess) for women only; games, music and dancing.
5/12/11 – Faunus (god of the wild countryside)
8/12/11 – Tiberinus (spirit of the river Tiber) and Gaia (Earth)
13/12/11–24/12/11 Saturnalia (god Saturn) gift-giving, feasting, decorating.
13/12/11 – Tellus (ancient earth goddess)
15/12/11 – Consualia (Consus, god of the granary connected with safekeeping of the harvest)
19/12/11 –Iuventas (goddess of youth,a celebration for all boys coming of age (14)
19/12/11 – Opalia (Ops was the personification of abundance)
21/12/11 – Sol Invictus (Unconquered Sun, festival held on the winter solstice)
23/12/11 – Larentalia (possibly related to the she-wolf who suckled Romulus and Remus).
Saturnalia was by far the biggest celebration lasting many days and giving people the excuse for many excesses. Here’s how Seneca the Younger described it, in a Scroogy way, in the late first century AD:
“This is the month of December, when the whole city is aglow with excitement. License has been given for intemperate behaviour by the general public. Everywhere you can hear the sound of elaborate preparations, as if there were some differences between the Saturnalia and regular business days. The distinction is fading. I think that man was quite right who said, ‘December used to be a month; now it’s the whole year.’”
This festive season waned during the bleak Middle Ages with the advent of Christianity and the banning of Roman gods and festivals. But the human spirit can’t be kept down and we have revived winter celebrations to Roman proportions in the last couple hundred years. Now we call it Christmas, Hanukkah, or Kwanza; whatever we call it, let’s embrace the joy of the season.
Bring on December!
For ideas for your next festive dinner party, here’s a funny little video about Roman dining: