Ten Roman Festivals (that are weirder than Halloween)

From my Honours thesis to my current book trilogy, the festivals of Ancient Rome are a lot more important/relevant to me than just about any modern festival. So given that Twitter has been buzzing with lots of non-Americans complaining at the assumption that everyone follows the same traditions, I thought I’d offer some alternatives from the ancient world.

Because, let’s face it. Traditions are weird. All of them. If you actually think about them, they’re weird.

So, put aside the candy corn and Sarah Palin costumes and check out Ten Roman Festivals that are weirder than Halloween:

10. Saturnalia
This one’s a classic, and it gives us the origins of Christmas. Held in late December, it involves general feasting and present-giving. Most notably, though, it was the night when masters and slaves exchanged places. Can you imagine how awkward that would be? Sure it sounds like it’s a bit of fun, letting the slaves have a night off, but they were back as slaves the next day, so I can’t think they would let themselves have too much fun… The most important thing about this festival, though, is that the blokes do the cooking.

9. Lupercalia
Opinions are divided on whether this February festival is a ritual of purification or fertility. What they do know is that it involved barely-clad young men running through the streets, striking people with a goat thong. No, I do not know what a goat thong was. They did not cover that in my PhD. Moving on…

8. Veneralia
On April 1, this was another festival involving topsy-turviness (technical term there). It was the one day in which women (aristocrats and plebs mingling together) were allowed to enter the men’s baths, wearing myrtle wreaths in honour of Venus Verticordia. They would take a statue of Fortuna Virilis (fortune of men) in with them, removing her jewellery (yep, statues wore jewellery) to wash her.

7. Parilia
A rural festival, this one involves shepherds jumping over bonfires. And, um, sheep. The sheep jump over the bonfires. I can’t even imagine how that works.

6. Fornacalia
I’m not even kidding. Don’t get too excited, though, this one’s just about the baking of the corn. Honest. Corn-baking. Festival of ovens.

5. Parentalia
This one has shades of Halloween in that it’s a festival of the dead. Held in February in honour of the deified ancestors, this is a week of sacrifices (flower garlands, wheat, salt, wine-soaked bread, violets) to the manes or shades of the dead. At the end of the week, on the Feralia, the paterfamilias (senior male of the family) exorcises the ghosts, and the following day on the Caristia, everyone has a nice lunch and says nice things about the ancestors who are now (we hope) thoroughly gone again until next year.

4. Lemuria
No, this isn’t the holy Roman festival celebrating lemurs (though, wouldn’t that be awesome??), it’s another day of making sure the dead lie down. Possibly instituted in honour of the death of Remus (killed by his ambitious twin brother Romulus), this May festival is about appeasing the restless dead with the creative application of beans. Also, the Vestals baked cake. Salt cake, not layer cake, which is a shame because you’d think after a hard day of spirit-appeasing, everyone could do with a bit of cake.

3. Floralia
Another nearly week-long festival, this one in April-May and revolving around flowers, flowers and more flowers. Also colourful clothes, milk and honey. It was dedicated to the springy goddess Flora, and was particularly popular with prostitutes, who claimed the festival as their own. This is the origins of the May Day celebration, of course, with its ribbons and morris dancers. The Romans also held the Ludi Florales or Games of the Flowers, which actually involved lots of theatre and performing arts as well as good old circus acts. Apparently at the end of the performing animal acts in the Circus Maximus, all the animals were set free, which sounds like a very bad idea indeed.

2. The October Horse
The famous racing festival of Rome (Melbourne Cup and Ascot, eat your heart out), this one took part on the Ides (full moon) of October, and involved a two-horse chariot race. This one is famous because the right-hand (outer) horse of the winning pair would be slaughtered, beheaded, chopped into little bits and burned as sacrifice. And the Vestals would keep some of the blood, for cake-making purposes. Oh yes they would. And everyone thinks they’re so sweet…

1. The Bona Dea.
This one’s my favourite. The first rule of Bona Dea is, you don’t talk about Bona Dea. The second rule of Bona Dea is, YOU DON’T TALK ABOUT BONA DEA. This was a women’s festival, no men allowed, and the rites were famously secret. This did not prevent male writers and artists from getting lasciviously excited about what actually happened at these ceremonies. There were rumours of snakes. Of drinking wine and calling it ‘milk.’ Did I mention the snakes? The important thing, though, is that no women have recorded what went on, because speaking of it was forbidden, leaving us with just the speculations of men. I’m suspecting that Lindsey Davis had it right with mint tea and finger sandwiches, sadly.

What we do know is that in 62 BCE it was being hosted by the wife and mother of Julius Caesar, and a tribune called Publius Clodius sneaked in, disguised as a flute girl, in the hope of seducing Caesar’s wife. Honestly, you can’t make this stuff up. He was put on trial for blasphemy, but the women all refused to testify against him, saying in essence: the goddess will get him. And indeed she did…

Well, okay, he died in a riot, but it was near the temple.

Fine, it was within sight of the temple.

The moral of the story is that you don’t mess with the gods, okay? Just keep killing the animals and baking the cakes and everything’s Going to be Fine.

4 replies on “Ten Roman Festivals (that are weirder than Halloween)”

  1. Anonymous says:

    I look forward to more posts tagged “thosecrazyromans” 🙂

  2. Kaia says:

    Argh, delete the previous comment, I messed up the HTML.


    Our weirdest holidays, most which you can Wiki!

    Valborgsmässoafton on April 30th. No idea how to translate that. There are bonfires and songs to welcome spring. Yes, seriously.

    May First on May 1st, obviously. International workers day. We do demonstrations for labourers and other workers, but not to protest anything. It’s more to show loyalty to those who work, and show the big employers that there is strength in numbers.

    Midsummer’s Eve on the third Friday of June. Our version of summer solstice. Includes decorating a um, phallic shaped thingy with leaves and flowers, eating too many types of herring and doing shots until we can’t stand up straight.

    All Saints Day on November 1st. We don’t do Halloween, we have this instead. Basically it’s a day to remember our dead, and people go to light candles on the graves of friends and family. Some of the older generation are really offended by Halloween, cos they feel that making this weekend into a game of trick-or-treat is, um, what’s the word? Disrespectful.

    Luciadagen on December 13th – somehow we celebrate an Italian saint who gave stuff to the poor and supposedly carried candles on her head instead of in her hands. This we do by dressing in white gowns with red sashes and putting candles stuck to wreaths in our hair. If the Lucia is under 14 or so, they are electrical. Otherwise not. Ouch. We sing Christmas songs, and somehow it’s become a beauty contest – the prettiest/most popular girl is Lucia and gets candles in her hair. The rest gets to be her maids and holds the candle in her hand instead. Not entirely sure why that is less awesome, since it means no wax in your hair.

    Then there’s the usual ones, of course, but they’re boring. Except for the fact that instead of having Easter being about the death of Jesus it’s a day where kids dress up as witches and go trick-or-treating.

    So I guess we have Halloween after all. Only… not.

  3. tansyrr says:

    Seriously, Swedish people go trick or treating for Easter?

    We have Australia Day in January which is basically an excuse to have a barbecue and drink a lot of beer, though more recently it’s been tied up with protest about celebrating the invasion of white people… so now there’s lots of guilt and the news is always full of drunk morons doing racially offensive things with flags, so… well, yes. Funny how patriotism and racism go hand in hand, isn’t it? Our family reinterpreted it as Aurelia Day for a few years, since it’s so close to Raeli’s birthday and the public holiday is a nice time to do a family & friends party. Only now of course she wants different kinds of parties…

    I think the oddest thing about Australian festivals which people almost never acknowledge is that because we’re in the Southern hemisphere, they’re all in the WRONG PLACE. Sure we have Christmas cards with Santa on a surf board and we have chocolate bilbies as well as bunnies at Easter… but there’s no getting around the fact that we have Christmas and New Year in the middle of blazing summer and sing songs about snow and eat steamed pudding and roast beast (though more and more people choose the seafood salad option, still no herring). Having Easter in autumn always struck me as very wrong because leaving aside the newfangled religious elements, it’s a spring festival and all the symbology associated with it is eggs, bunnies, chicks, etc.

    Our Halloween (which we are NOT celebrating cos we’re Aussies, right guys?) comes only a few weeks after daylight savings, just as the evenings are getting lighter, brighter and warmer. Which makes trick or treating more safe and comfortable, but I suspect rather misses the point.

  4. Kaia says:

    Haha, well, the trick-or-treating part comes from the belief that the Thursday before Easter (which we call Pink Thursday!) is the only day in the whole year that witches show their true selves by flying brooms to… somewhere. So, on that day kids dress up as witches. The boys too.

    And yeah, our national day (equivalent to Australia Day, I guess), is also ruined cos of all the racist people stealing it and making it into something ugly. Happens everywhere I guess.

    Sometime I want to experience your backwards weather. It sounds awesome.

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