celebrating Saturnalia with your students

For many students, Saturnalia is one of the highlights of the year, a relaxing and memorable day amid the stress of semester finals**. I highly recommend setting aside a day to celebrate Saturnalia in your classes, and maybe a day or two to prepare. If you choose to use some of my strategies, you can have fun with your students, and not burn yourself out with extra planning.

*Nota Bene: Much of this was conceived and written before COVID. With COVID safety precautions in place, so please adapt as needed. I am not recommending any activity that might compromise your or your students’ safety during the pandemic. Sharing food, singing in close quarters, etc. need to be conducted with caution and/or outdoors if possible.

First of all, this is not Christmas! I make sure to tell my students that Saturnalia is the source of many of our modern winter holiday rituals, and it pre-dates Christianity. Many students are surprised (and kind of relieved) to learn that most of what we associate with “Christmas” is not fundamentally Christian. Candles and lights, trees, gifts, decorations, gathering with family, etc. are pretty much universal mid-winter practices. This means that anyone can celebrate Saturnalia, and it doesn’t really have to be about one’s faith. This is basically a celebration of mid-winter, and the return of light in the form of longer days, as well as the abundance of the fall harvest. Check out the Historia Civilis 9 minute video on Saturnalia, which I usually show before, or on the day of (trigger warning: slavery). Now let’s get to the details.

Planning, and decorating the room: If you choose to have a prep day, you might want to have students use computers to research Saturnalia and come up with their own plan for decorating and celebrating. This may require a third day: 1) research, 2) decoration and planning 3) the party. Here is the research web page I created for students. There is also a research lab day assignment sheet in the misc folder below.

I have a few strings of christmas lights, the ones with fake pine garlands on them. I also have a few signs and decorations made by students in past years, to put up and to show as examples for our decorating day. Each year, at the end, I like to keep a few of the really nice ones and add them to my Saturnalia box* (which contains everything I need for the celebration). During the class before our celebration, I show students the wikihow page, how to celebrate saturnalia, and then I give them colored and white paper, scissors, colored pencils, LOTS OF TAPE, etc, and encourage them to make: stars, suns, moons, images of presents, candle images, pictures of Saturnus, cornucopia, paper chains (but not too long!), etc. I also put a few holiday greetings on the board and encourage them to write and decorate signs: felices ferias, Io Saturnalia, Felix vobis sit, Celebremus!, etc. I also encourage students to bring in their own art supplies or crafts they might make at home. If you want to use points to encourage this, you can, but many students will bring in decorations of their own accord.

The songs. I have collected holiday songs in Latin over the years. Because of my school context, I don’t use the super-Christian ones, but if your community is ok with that, then you have more choices. That said, you only need 6-7 songs in order to have a sing-along. Kids usually get tired of it after that. I have taken the most popular songs and put them into a Saturnalia Songbook, and have 20-30 copies in my Saturnalia box. Every year or two, I update it, and make additional copies, because a few students always want to take a songbook home with them. Here is a link to my current Saturnalia Songbook. You can have students practice during the prep/decoration day, and then they are more likely to sing along during the celebration.

Games. I have a few simple Roman games, rules, and gameboards to print out on single sheets. Here is a concise list of simple Roman games. Also, make sure to have some dice and decks of cards on hand, so students can play a game of “I Piscatum” (go fish), or even something in English if you are okay with that. I’m sure there are other card games, etc. that are more based in the ancient world and/or Latin, but I’ll have to add that to my Saturnalia box for another year. Also, I have some vintage Roman-based board games that don’t take too long to set up and play: Roman X: The Game of The Caesars, and TABVLA. Both are out of print, but available used on Ebay and elsewhere. Here’s my misc Saturnalia folder, which contains those Roman game descriptions as well as a lot of other random Saturnalia stuff.

The Party. This year I’m a bit at a loss, because food and drink were such a fundamental part of my celebrations in the pre-COVID past. Normally, I would have students bring in food and drink and the serving and sharing of food would take up a lot of the time, and we would sing leading to a toast with red grape juice (“merum vinum”). This year, students can bring food as long as it is pre-cut in portable “grab and go” form to be enjoyed between classes outdoors. I think this year, games will be a bigger part of the celebration, especially since Romans enjoyed a lot of gambling during Saturnalia. So this year it will have to be decorations, songs, and games, with a bit of food on the way out.

* Saturnalia box contents: Strings of lights, 40 copies of Saturnalia Latin songbook (updated and replenished every few years), samples of student decorations, colored paper specifically for Saturnalia decorations (purple, blue yellow/gold), printouts of Roman gameboards and rules (playing cards and dice are in my “games” box, but you may want to put saturnalia specific games and supplies in this box as well).

**On a personal note, Saturnalia was a really positive experience for me and my students, at a time when I was beyond burnt out during my first year at my current job. I almost didn’t do a Saturnalia celebration because I was overwhelmed, but when I brought it up, and asked for some help, a few students showed up after school to help me decorate. Then, the next day there was suddenly a lot of student buy-in, and by the time we had our party, there was noticeably more of a sense of community and trust. We had also established a tradition that students could take ownership of. If you are new to your job, Saturnalia is a great way to build community, and get your students bragging to their friends and family about how great Latin class is.