Welcome, convīvae !

The custom of giving gifts at the start of a new year, for example the handsel in Britain or the étrenne  in France, began with the strēna  of Roman times. During the holiday season of the Saturnalia, Romans exchanged a variety of gifts and favors. Wax candles or lamps, tied up with bits of holly, were offered to adults to light the way in the coming year. Sometimes they were presented with bags of nuts during the festival, which were probably used as marbles or as gambling stakes. Children were often given small clay figurines called sigilla.

Such gifts were of two types: xenia  and apophorēta. The former were presents sent to the recipients' homes; the latter were dinner favors which the guests took home with them after the meal. Some of Martial's poems, especially those in Books 13 and 14, can be imagined as tags or labels attached to the gifts they describe: rare foods, wines and perfumes, floral crowns, bookcases, volumes of Catullus' poetry, and minature editions of Vergil or Cicero. If you have the Latin, read some of Martial's epigrams in the original.

Other customs during the holidays involved the reversal of usual roles and the suspension of certain laws. Household slaves were waited on by their masters, for example, and only during the Saturnalia was gambling allowed, so the dice rolled freely. Véronique and her friend are playing a game similar to jacks called tali  using the knucklebones of a sheep. Games of chance were played by boys who tossed coins and called "heads" or "ships". (The head of Janus was on one side of the coin; a ship was on the other.) The coin was the first to be struck in bronze, and it commemorated Saturn, whose coming had been by ship.

The celebration of the Saturnalia includes the selection of a princeps Saturnalicius, a mock king who presides over the festivities in each household. Many other holiday games, attractions, and activities await your participation as well! An advent calendar for Saturnalia includes surprises every day of December. Here's a peek at this year's menu.

Will you stay for dinner? All things are ready; come to the feast!


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