The classic 1953 movie “Roman Holiday” starred Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck in a lighthearted tale of white lies and concealed identities. This Roman holiday was a short jaunt, an escape through the streets of Rome as a brief respite by an overstressed princess. A memorable scene unfolds in front of an ancient artifact…the “Mouth of Truth”, a mythic lie detector with the power to uncover a falsehood and claim the hand of the one who spoke the untruth. We all gasped as Gregory Peck placed his arm into the Mouth and pulled it out with his hand withdrawn into his sleeve. Then laughed as he revealed his unharmed hand.
This artifact is real. Legend holds that in ancient times the unfaithful wife of a wealthy aristocrat was taken to the Mouth of Truth to confirm or belie accusations of infidelity. As she stood before the Mouth her lover came forth from the gathered crowd and kissed her. Portending surprise, she pushed him away, claiming he must be a madman. Declaring that the only man other than her husband she had ever kissed was the madman from the crowd she defiantly thrust her arm into the Mouth of Truth. The onlookers awaited her judgment. When she withdrew her arm the hand was intact, for she had not (technically) lied.
The Mouth of Truth was associated with an ancient Roman river god, but it is another god who was truly celebrated in grand Roman holiday fashion. In mid-December of each year Saturn, god of agriculture, was honored during his namesake celebration, “Saturnalia”.
It was a time of merriment, gift-giving, banquets, and relaxed order. Slaves were treated as family, and masters assumed the role of servant. Wine flowed, and food from the recent harvest was plentiful. Saturnalia began as a one day celebration, but over time it grew into a week long festivity. Not even mighty emperors, Augustus or Caligula, could curtail this revelry (although both did try to shorten this unruly Pagan “holiday”).
Our modern festivities of December: Christmas, Yule, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Boxing Day…seem meek by comparison. All twelve days of Christmas, eight days of Hanukkah, and seven days of Kwanzaa together cannot match the week long frenzy of Saturnalia. Oh how those ancient Romans could party!
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