Forget the controversy over whether to say Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays. I am going to be shouting Io Saturnalia to all of my friends and neighbors this week!

Saturnalia is an ancient Roman holiday, celebrated from Dec. 17 through Dec. 23 that was a precursor to Christmas. It was named for the agricultural deity Saturn, who is the god of seeds and sowing. This weeklong holiday must have been quite a party.

The celebration was also called the ‘feast of lights,’ and featured candles to symbolize the renewal of light and a quest for truth and knowledge. Saturnalia occurred during the lead-up to the winter solstice, which is the shortest day of the year. It was a final festival to acknowledge the ending of the dark and coming of the light, with the aftermath of the solstice bringing longer days and shorter nights. Following these events would be Sol Invictus, the birthday of the ‘unconquerable sun.’ Hallelujah for that sun ­— I am truly tired of the dark.

Encyclopedia Romana well described the wild week of Saturnalia: “During the holiday, restrictions were relaxed and the social order inverted. Gambling was allowed in public. Slaves were permitted to use dice and didn’t have to work.” Within the family, a Lord of Misrule was chosen. Slaves were treated as equals, allowed to wear their masters’ clothing, and be waited on at mealtime in remembrance of an earlier golden age thought to have been ushered in by the god. 

In the Saturnalia, (poet) Lucian relates “During my week the serious is barred; no business allowed. Drinking, noise and games and dice, appointing of kinds and feasting of slaves, singing naked, clapping of frenzied hands, an occasional ducking of corked faces in icy water—such are the functions over which I preside.”

Not everyone loved the craziness. Pliny the Younger, ever the worker bee or perhaps the first Scrooge, took refuge from the partying multitudes in his garden summer house, where he explained he “would fancy myself a hundred miles away from my villa, and take especial pleasure in it at the feast of the Saturnalia, when, by the license of that festive season, every other part of my house resounds with my servants’ mirth: thus I neither interrupt their amusement nor they my studies.” 

Another naysayer was Seneca who complained, “The whole mob has let itself go to pleasures.”

Others loved the season. Sir James Frazer described it as, “the darker passions find a vent which would never be allowed them in the more staid and sober course of ordinary life.” And Catullus called the week of Saturnalia “the best of days.”

So with the changing of the guard, from dark to light, and more day than night, I hope that you are able to follow the lead of the Ancient Romans and throw off your toga for a great week of partying. In that spirit, don’t be afraid to join in the celebrations of those who have much to rejoice in, and to share with those that don’t.

Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown, and author of Martha’s Vineyard: A Field Guide to Island Nature.