By Telos of Compersia
December is a month with a litany of holidays. Some celebrate Hanukkah, others Christmas, Kwanzaa, the Winter Solstice, another holiday, or no holiday at all. Personally, I’m partial to Winter Solstice as a marker of the soon-to-return sunshine, and we had quite the Christmas feast here at Compersia, but on December 17th we also celebrated Saturnalia, as one of our members, Jenny, has done with her kids for several years.
Saturnalia is an ancient Roman festival in celebration of Saturn, the agricultural god of generation, dissolution, wealth, renewal, and liberation. The festival would start at the Temple of Saturn, with a pig sacrificed in Saturn’s honor, and the undoing of the woolen bonds normally tied around the feet of Saturn’s statue, signaling his liberation. Saturnalia would last through December 23rd, featuring public banquets, the exchange of candles and terracotta figurines as gifts, and (most importantly) an upheaval of social conventions.
Romans would ditch their togas in favor of colorful dinner clothing that was normally considered in poor taste for daytime wear. Masters and slaves alike would wear the the mark of a freed slave, a conical felt cap called a pileus. Slaves said and did what they wanted, including openly disrespecting their own masters without threat of punishment. Gambling, normally frowned upon, would happen openly, and even slaves would take part.
Even more so than a relaxation of social conventions, Saturnalia was their reversal. Drunkenness was the rule, rather than the exception. Slaves would have a grand banquet at their master’s table, sometimes waited on by the masters themselves. Each household would choose a mock king from their lowest ranks, the Saturnalicius princeps, also called the “lord of misrule.” This lowly king would insult guests, give absurd orders (such as to dance naked- always fun), and cause other mischief.
At Compersia, the children were our Saturnalicius princeps. For one day, they were given the chance to rule, to decide what was important (or fun) to do, and to have adults making them cookies all day (we ate some too), all without pressure to clean up their mess. The catch is that for big decisions, the children had to use consensus, since that’s what the adults of Compersia have assented to. In the spirit of true role reversal, some of the adults whined about the children’s rule. “But why do we have to make paper snowflakes right now?” “I don’t want macaroni and cheese for dinner!”
Ultimately, Saturnalia was joyous, whimsical, and did not result in our house getting burnt down. The costumes were on point, our tree ended up beautifully decorated, and the cookies were abundant. It turns out that the kids here are reasonably responsible and know how to have a good time!
Beyond the fun of celebrating Saturnalia in our own home, I think it’s a holiday that can hold wider inspiration for those who dream of social change. What if we aspired to bring the social upheaval of Saturnalia to the wider world, in an ongoing way? Elevating the oppressed and putting power into the service of the masses have always been worthy goals, far too noble to be confined to one day. If we’re to take any lessons from Saturnalia, perhaps this social upheaval starts in our own communities, when we successfully share power with the least powerful among us. Io Saturnalia!