After I graduated from college, I hung around for a couple years trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life before I came to an inevitable bad end; while I did this, I served as a resident advisor in a freshman dorm. This mainly involved listening to my students cry and organizing parties. This was most easily done by coordinating with the holidays: a Hallowe’en party in October, a Thanksgiving party in November. Come December, many of the RA groups arranged Secret Santa parties.
This is, for those of you raised by wolves, how Secret Santa works: members of a group gather and all write their names on pieces of paper, which they then put into a hat or bowl or similarly concave container. Everybody picks a name and, for X number of days before Christmas (or whatever date has been selected for the Secret Santa party), people leave anonymous gifts for the people whose names they’ve chosen. This all culminates in an event at which people try to guess who their anonymous benefactors have been during the previous days.
In any event, many resident advisors, aware that the demographic of the college was not uniformly Christian, came up with other names for the event so as not to marginalize or exclude students of other faiths. One RA did “Secret Snowflakes,” which, while it did the trick, made me want to hurl. Another did “Secret Non-Denominational Holiday Gift Givers,” which I must admit to liking; the problem was that it didn’t take into account students who didn’t traditionally celebrate any sort of winter holiday, denominational or no. Forcing them to be Secret Non-Denominational Holiday Gift Givers might marginalize or exclude them, which would defeat the purpose of renaming the event. Other RAs came up with other solutions, but none of them really worked for me.
So I decided that my group would do Secret Saturnalians.
Saturnalia was, for those of you raised by wolves, the ancient Roman holiday (celebrated on December 25) that eventually gave way to Christmas. I had a student from Hungary and another from Greece, but as my charges were all under the age of 19, it was a scientific impossibility that any of them could have been born in the Roman Empire before 391 A.D. (the year Emperor Theodosius outlawed the traditional pagan Roman religion). So by celebrating Saturnalia, my students would not only spread joy and goodwill throughout the group but also learn to appreciate a different cultural tradition. I didn’t make them wear ancient Roman dress, but they did have to wander around wishing each other “io Saturnalia” (the traditional greeting), and I threw a party at the end. I wanted to make some traditional ancient Roman holiday snacks, but I couldn’t find a single pet store willing to sell me a thousand larks once I told them I was going to cut out the larks’ tongues and marinate them in red wine.