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Io Saturnalia

by ELENA JOHNSON/Coeur Voice contributor
| December 12, 2020 1:00 AM

If you took Spanish or French in high school (or ever), you probably won’t understand.

Let’s face it. In the U.S., “Do you speak any languages?” is basically just a way to ask if you were any good at high school Spanish or French. Unless you were rather exceptional and took German or something “exotic” like Italian – or for the kids of today, Japanese even.

But if you answer “Well, I mean, I can read Latin. Does that count?” you’re basically begging to be asked. “Wait, why?” To be followed shortly with, “I didn’t know that was even a thing anymore!” Trust us, it is.

While your grandpa’s going to be super into it – he’ll brag to all his friends about smart you are – everyone else just wants to know why you didn’t learn anything useful. And that includes most of your family. (You mean being able to read the road signs and menus in half of Europe and most of Latin America isn’t useful enough?)

Even worse, French and Spanish students get to read novels or witty, surrealist short stories, not just parsing their way through the Aeneid. They can watch movies or television as “practice.” Plus they get songs, real songs written by actual artists, rather than their Latin teacher’s newest pronoun declension sung to the tune of Farmer in the Dell.

Latin students have nothing but demon-summoning jokes (don’t worry, most of us can’t speak Latin, so we’re totally harmless). And, okay, dressing up in tunics is kind of fun. But that’s pretty much it.

Except this time of year.

Oh yes, it’s Saturnalia season. Y’all are in our turf now.

That lovely tree gracing your living room? Straight outta ancient Rome! Not only did the ancient Romans decorate theirs with treats and stars, they also set theirs aglow with candles. The modern electric practice is definitely much safer, even if things didn’t work out for Aunt Edna’s cat.

Even dressing the home with branches and wreaths of pine is accurate. The Romans would bring in bits of pine trees. And although stars have a special significance in the modern tradition, the Romans liked to decorate with them too this time of year.

Although a modern understanding of germ theory has pretty much put an end to the practice of baking coins into bread, you can thank the Romans for that, too.

These are the same people who poisoned themselves with lead pipes and let the, err, household waste run off into the streets, so don’t be too surprised. May I suggest chocolate coins baked into your bread instead?

And if a week-long public holiday of merry-making isn’t your thing – and it’s perfectly understandable if gambling, heavy drinking, and other mischief-making are not your preferred December activities – there’s always the option to take a slightly more recent tradition and observe a modern religious holiday, with a not-so-modern language.

After all, most of the classic Christmas carols have Latin lyrics. Even Rudolph has his own translation.

No matter that the other students always have Carnival and hip music.

Latin students always have the most important thing of all – the opportunity to annoy family, friends, and strangers endlessly by pointing out arcane traditions.

So “yo”(io) Saturnalia!

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