Ho, Ho, Ho Saturnalia
The Barest of things...
Allow me to begin with a bit of shameless self-promotion: Wednesday nights I host trivia at Quest Brewing Company. We have a good time and if you like that sort of thing you should come out and join us. Now with that bit of business out of the way, let me explain why that is relevant to the story of Saturnalia.
Presenting trivia on Wednesdays means that Monday evenings are spent with a couple of cocktails as I research and write that week’s edition of trivia. I try to keep it timely and seasonal with subject matter that most everybody should be able to relate to. Sometimes I lose track of the cocktails, however, and go off the rails a bit. Occasionally I do not even realize this until, say, I get to trivia on Wednesday.
Such was the case this week when I realized an hour before trivia that I wrote an entire 10 question round on the ancient Roman celebration Saturnalia. While I remembered being fascinated by the facts of it all, it never once occurred to me that most people had never even heard of Saturnalia, much less be qualified to answer 10 questions about it. That belated suspicion was confirmed when I asked the room of 40-50 people what they knew about the ancient holiday and only two of them were able to offer “Roman Christmas” and nothing else. Needless to say, I scratched it on the spot and only presented three rounds of trivia this past week (Christmas songs, Grand Theft Auto because of a friend’s car being stolen, and Die Hard because it’s Christmas if you are curious).
With all this pent up Saturnalia knowledge, I thought this might be a good place to share some of it so we can celebrate together.
Saturnalia was a weeklong celebration that ran from December 17th to the 23rd in honor of the agricultural god Saturn. To celebrate, Romans canceled school, work, and all courts of law, decorated their homes with wreaths and other greenery, and sacrificed a pig at the Temple of Saturn. Then, all hell officially broke loose.
Societal norms of the day were not just ignored, they were literally reversed. Slave owners served their slaves dinner, gambling went from being illegal to highly encouraged, and most laws were no longer enforced. Each household even assigned a King of Chaos just to make sure everybody was properly celebrating the occasion. Think of it as that Purge movie but instead of killing each other they drank and screwed themselves silly.
There were also lots of candles, gift giving, and holiday parties and dinners. Sound familiar?
Saturnalia is believed to have begun in the 4th or 5th century BC but by the 4th century AD, Christianity was really starting to gather some steam. Since nobody knows exactly when Jesus was born, Christian churches decided that piggybacking the pagans’ most popular holiday was a solid marketing move and Christmas was invented. Both celebrations awkwardly co-existed for a time until Rome decided it liked Jesus better than Saturn, and Saturnalia was put out to pasture once and for all.
Saturnalia was way too much fun to dispose of completely and nobody wanted to start entirely new traditions anyway so those wreaths, candles, gifts, and feasts were fully incorporated into the new holiday. The drinking and screwing continued, albeit in an unofficial capacity, and gambling moved from carefree games to wondering if you got the wife the right gift for Christmas and if it might lead to the aforementioned screwing. Oh, and that Christmas ham? Clearly an homage to that sacrificed Saturnalia pig if you ask me.
Lastly, the common greeting amongst citizens during Saturnalia was “Lo, Saturnalia!” with the “lo” eventually evolving into “ho”. Rumor has it that Santa Clause’s patented “ho, ho, ho” is a direct reference to this, making one wonder if Santa’s first job was the Roman god of agriculture, Saturn himself. It would certainly explain his abilities as one must have god-like powers to have a delivery system as fast and efficient as Santa’s.
So there you have it. Whether you call it Saturnalia, Roman Christmas, or the “best of times” as the Roman poet Catullus did, let us not forget the true meaning of Christmas – guerrilla marketing and cultural appropriation as the college kids say. Or Jesus. Maybe Jesus. Who can even tell anymore?
Lo, Saturnalia, Merry Christmas, and Fête It Be. Have a safe and happy holiday season, folks!