No such thing as January blues in Ancient Rome - The Leamington Observer

No such thing as January blues in Ancient Rome

JANUARY is a time for resolutions and new starts.

But despite good intentions, sometimes there is no escaping the urge to bury back under the duvet until spring.

That was not a difficult thing to do in ancient Rome as January and February did not appear in the calendar. The new year started in March, which followed on from December.

January and February were thought to have been added into the calendar by Roman ruler Numa Pompilius in 700 BC, who named January for the God Janus with two faces looking to the past and to the future.

But this did little to curb the influence of our ancient forefathers on a string of cross-cultural and international celebrations – still existing today – sure to blitz the oncoming tide of January blues.

Today the twelfth day of Christmas for many Brits means a fond farewell to the decaying Christmas tree.

But in ancient Rome it marked the beginning of Saturnalia, the celebration of the sun god Saturn – or in pagan terms – spring. It was later integrated with the Christian day of Epiphany – the day when the three kings visited Jesus – to save unorthodox folk from debauch.

A feasting tradition still existing today, was the ‘king cake’. The lucky recipient of a single bean placed in the cake would be the king of tomfoolery for the rest of the evening.

During Saturnalia, the ‘bean king’ was chosen from among the Emperor’s servants, allowing him to sit in the emperor’s place, take first pickings and rule for six weeks. However the act of generosity meant the servant was killed promptly after the holiday.

The festival eventually fell victim to the church’s culling process, but later masked itself as quite literally as ‘Carnival’ – a 40 day festival during which participants would enjoy unbridled revelry in brightly coloured masks.

Now known as Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday in France and pancake day in England, the event would mark the end of the festivities before Lent.

In some countries the event has a reputation for thematic sexuality where revellers shed garments in exchange for beads.

This may have been influenced by the pre-Roman celebration of health and fertility ‘Februa’ – or ‘purgings’ – which unsurprisingly gave rise to February and some believe, Valentine’s day.

Perhaps controversially, the event clashed with Lupercalia – the celebration of the Faun God Lycaean – which saw noblemen and women racing naked down the street wafting fur thongs in the faces of unsuspecting passersby.

Today Valentine’s day typically follows Christmas on the commercial calendar and shops can’t wait to start stocking up on love tokens and sentiments.

But perhaps cynics should look to the Roman calendar before January and February existed. After all – when in Rome…


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