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Middle School Latin Students Celebrate Saturnalia

Severn Middle School Latin students took a trip back to ancient Rome last week to celebrate Saturnalia, an ancient Roman festival that honors the winter Solstice and includes many traditions. 
And thanks to Middle School Latin teacher George Yost, the Saturnalia celebration at Severn has become its own tradition. 
“I’ve been doing Saturnalia since December 1997,” said Yost. “We’ve done it every year, even during COVID.”  To celebrate the holiday, students prepared different Roman foods, dressed up in togas, played games, and watched videos throughout the day.
Leading up to Saturnalia, students learn about the festival, originally a time to celebrate the winter Solstice and pay homage to Saturn, the Roman god of agriculture. People would give each other gifts, decorate with greenery, and hold many feasts. This may sound familiar - many of these ancient traditions are a way to celebrate modern-day Christmas. Yost enjoys telling students about the origins of things they recognize now, such as Santa's red and white hat. "Freed slaves wore a 'pileus', a red and white cap during Saturnalia," said Yost. "It's fun to see the kids' reactions to something they see now that originated thousands of years ago." 
The main event is a large lunch spread that all Middle School students are welcome to join. Students spent time researching and testing Roman recipes, such as bread, meat, and even ice cream. Charlie Hilliard '29 made his own homemade rose-flavored ice cream, a flavor found often in ancient times. "I just thought it sounded cool," said Hilliard. He made a test batch, bringing it in for Mr. Yost to try before Saturnalia and another for the big day. The massive feast included several types of breads, meats, soups, cookies, fruits and cheeses, sparkling cider, and even Chick-fil-A nuggets, which were not a staple in Roman cuisine but delicious, nonetheless.
Sometimes, there are standout dishes from Saturnalia that are long remembered, such as a peacock dish from almost 20 years ago. Peacocks were a symbol of weather and prosperity in ancient Rome and a show-stopping dish. “I had a student whose grandparents lived on a farm, and they had a few peacocks. After one of them met an untimely end, she was able to use it for a dish here at Saturnalia," said Yost. "That is one of the crazier stories I have." For proof, one only has to look above his desk to see two peacock feathers standing tall. “They are still so vibrant, even after all these years.” 
The atmosphere was even more festive, with several students dressed in tunics or togas, which Mr. Yost also wore. He helped several students with the correct wrapping of their togas and had extras on hand for anyone who didn't have one. "I even used to bring in my sewing machine!" said Yost. 
While Saturnalia is just a one-day celebration at Severn, Middle School Latin students revisit that culture every day in Mr. Yost’s classroom. They read books and plays, watch videos, and play games like Nine Mens Morris, a game similar to tic tac toe and chess. Mr. Yost's passion for helping students understand past customs is evident through the celebration of Saturnalia and his everyday teachings. "I love it when the kids get into it," said Yost. "It makes it really fun." 

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