Brightening deep December with raucous levity, Saturnalia was the merriest festival of the ancient Roman calendar. Inhibitions faded. Masters played at being servants, servants at being masters. The social order turned upside down. Chaos and mischief reigned.
Saturnalia is also my latest read in Lindsey Davis’s series about private investigator Marcus Didius Falco in imperial Rome.
Celebrations of chaos have emerged again and again. Social role-reversal was central to the medieval Feast of Fools. Massachusetts Puritans banned Christmas in part for its drunkenness and debauchery. Chaos is scary, especially when fueled by anger or hate. Even chaos that starts in fun can easily flare out of control.
Chaos and order; order and chaos. We see so much of both lately: riots and insurrection on one hand, hyper-monitoring on the other, all of it in such earnest. Order can never win totally. Some chaos will always break through. Rather than choose either extreme or seek a bland middle way, I’d rather lighten up and enjoy the dance. Savor Saturnalian chaos and order by turns, within basic boundaries of safety and respect.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.