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Ancient And Modern Saturnalia
by [?]

The Stagyrite discovered that our nature delights in imitation, and perhaps in nothing more than in representing personages different from ourselves in mockery of them; in fact, there is a passion for masquerade in human nature. Children discover this propensity; and the populace, who are the children of society, through all ages have been humoured by their governors with festivals and recreations, which are made up of this malicious transformation of persons and things; and the humble orders of society have been privileged by the higher, to please themselves by burlesquing and ridiculing the great, at short seasons, as some consolation for the rest of the year.

The Saturnalia of the Romans is a remarkable instance of this characteristic of mankind. Macrobius could not trace the origin of this institution, and seems to derive it from the Grecians; so that it might have arisen in some rude period of antiquity, and among another people. This conjecture seems supported by a passage in Gibbon’s Miscellanies,[127] who discovers traces of this institution among the more ancient nations; and Huet imagined that he saw in the jubilee of the Hebrews some similar usages. It is to be regretted, that Gibbon does not afford us any new light on the cause in which originated the institution itself. The jubilee of the Hebrews was the solemn festival of an agricultural people, but bears none of the ludicrous characteristics of the Roman Saturnalia.

It would have been satisfactory to have discovered the occasion of the inconceivable licentiousness which was thus sanctioned by the legislator,–this overturning of the principles of society, and this public ridicule of its laws, its customs, and its feelings. We are told, these festivals, dedicated to Saturn, were designed to represent the natural equality which prevailed in his golden age; and for this purpose the slaves were allowed to change places with the masters. This was, however, giving the people a false notion of the equality of men; for, while the slave was converted into the master, the pretended equality was as much violated as in the usual situation of the parties. The political misconception of this term of natural equality seems, however, to have been carried on through all ages; and the political Saturnalia had lately nearly thrown Europe into a state of that worse than slavery, where slaves are masters.

The Roman Saturnalia were latterly prolonged to a week’s debauchery and folly; and a diary of that week’s words and deeds would have furnished a copious chronicle of Facetiae. Some notions we acquire from the laws of the Saturnalia of Lucian, an Epistle of Seneca’s,[128] and from Horace, who from his love of quiet, retired from the city during this noisy season.

It was towards the close of December, that all the town was in an unusual motion, and the children everywhere invoking Saturn; nothing now to be seen but tables spread out for feasting, and nothing heard but shouts of merriment: all business was dismissed, and none at work but cooks and confectioners; no account of expenses was to be kept, and it appears that one-tenth part of a man’s income was to be appropriated to this jollity. All exertion of mind and body was forbidden, except for the purposes of recreation; nothing to be read or recited which did not provoke mirth, adapted to the season and the place. The slaves were allowed the utmost freedom of raillery and truth, with their masters;[129] sitting with them at the table, dressed in their clothes, playing all sorts of tricks, telling them of their faults to their faces, while they smutted them. The slaves were imaginary kings, as indeed a lottery determined their rank; and as their masters attended them, whenever it happened that these performed their offices clumsily, doubtless with some recollections of their own similar misdemeanors, the slave made the master leap into the water head-foremost. No one was allowed to be angry, and he who was played on, if he loved his own comfort, would be the first to laugh. Glasses of all sizes were to be ready, and all were to drink when and what they chose; none but the most skilful musicians and tumblers were allowed to perform, for those people are worth nothing unless exquisite, as the Saturnalian laws decreed. Dancing, singing, and shouting, and carrying a female musician thrice round on their shoulders, accompanied by every grotesque humour they imagined, were indulged in that short week, which was to repay the many in which the masters had their revenge for the reign of this pretended equality. Another custom prevailed at this season: the priests performed their sacrifices to Saturn bare-headed, which Pitiscus explains in the spirit of this extraordinary institution, as designed to show that time discovers, or, as in the present case of the bare-headed priests, uncovers, all things.