This is going to be a shamelessly short entry due to the yearly flurry of present and nog-related activities. Thankfully, the University of Reading has done all the work for me. Classics professor Dr. Matthew Nicholls, developer of Virtual Rome, a digital model of the ancient city, has compiled a neat rundown of the ancient sources on the Roman festival of Sigillaria. Held on December 23rd, Sigillaria was the culmination of a week of Saturnalia celebrations, a day of gift-giving and quaffing the questionable wine combinations that Romans were so fond of.
Quality of presents varied enormously. The traditional present for the Saturnalia was some nuts – not unlike old fashioned handful of walnuts in a Christmas stocking. Martial mentions ‘gifts given and received’ some of which sound rather familiar.
“Fish-sauce, jars of honey, bottles of wine, toothpicks, a pencil case, perfume, a flask encased in wicker-work and clothing – even an item that sounds like an ugly but warm Christmas sweater…a ‘shaggy nursling of a weaver on the Seine, a barbarian garment … a thing uncouth but not to be despised in cold December … that searching cold may not pass into your limbs … you will laugh at rain and winds, clothed in this gift’.
Uncouth compared to a toga, perhaps, but surely no worse than a tunic, albeit a fuzzy one. Besides, if it comes from the a weaver on the banks of the Seine, that makes it couture by default. Anyway it’s the thought that counts, right? Right!
“It’s warming to hear that the festive spirit was alive 2000 years ago. Martial tells us that the quality of a friendship can’t be measured by the value of the gifts, and even tells recipients of his cheap presents that he’s been ‘mean’ to save them the expense of buying something expensive in return (Ep. 5.59: ‘people who give much, want to receive much in return’). Simple presents were a token of friendship.
In Epigrams Book 13 and Book 14, Martial makes long lists of what presents to give during the winter festival. The range is vast, from knives to hatchets to nuts to toothpicks to letter-writing parchment to a golden hair pin to pomatum, a hair pomade (spot the etymology) the Germans used to redden their barbarous locks. That’s not the only hair dye on the list either. There are plenty of items Martial would have given his friends that we give today.
Then there’s all the food. Did you put barley water and large-headed leeks under your tree for the kiddies this year? If you did, I hope you survive to tell the tale.
Happy belated Sigillaria, all!