Saturnalia – Christmas’s Cool Older Brother

It always seems like some things have been around forever.  Like Christmas.  Surely we’ve been dragging trees in the house and roasting chestnuts since year 1, right?

Well, no.

The holiday of Saturnalia was started by the Romans in 217 BCE as a day to honor the god Saturn.  It started out as a one day thing, then spread out to a week from Dec 17-25.  Why?  Because it was so damn much fun!

First off, it was a day off from work and school.  Always nice.  Some things never change.  I’m sure many people would love to turn Labor Day into Labor Week too.

Then they did this thing where masters and slaves would switch places for the day.  Interesting.  Slaves would get to dine first and use the good silverware.  And they got to dress like freemen.  Apparently that means wearing some funny hat along with your bed sheet.

No chance of that custom being brought along over the years.  Southern gents and their belles in the fields picking cotton with switch marks on their backs?

They also gave gifts of wax candles to their friends.  Made shopping easy.  One stop at Yankee Candle and you’re good to go.  At least it’s a useful gift.  They had no electric lights.  That would be like now giving a bag of rice to an Ethiopian family, or Kanye West a muzzle.  And since all the gifts were the same, no husband ever had to say, “Honey, what did we get my mother for Saturnalia?”

And of course the holiday included MAJOR partying.  Imbibing whatever fermented fruits and grains they could get their hands on.  Loud music.  Probably bumping the latest hits from 50 Danarius and Lil Julius (not to be confused with Orange Julius).  And loads of gambling.

Right… Saturnalia was like a week in Las Vegas.  Except EVERYONE had that guilty look on their face Monday morning.  What happens in Rome stays in Rome.

And what comes with alcohol and music?  Sex… and Roman sex at that.  These people, already famous for their orgies, outdid themselves during Saturnalia.  And they did this for a week!  Longer than Woodstock!  And EVERY YEAR!

Some emperors tried to put the kibosh on it.  Augustus tried to limit it to 3 days, Caligula 5.  I guess ‘ol Cal didn’t want anyone else having his kind of fun.

Then in the 4th century AD, the Christians decided that maybe drinking and screwing wasn’t the best way to spend a week.

So they said, “Hey Pagans!  We’re going to make this an even bigger party!”

And the pagans said “Yay!”

The Christians said, “It’s going to be a birthday party!”

And the pagans said “Yay!”

And the Christians said “for Jesus!”

And the pagans said, “Wow, buzzkill dude.”

After 400 years they apparently forgot when Jesus was born and just decided to stick it in December.

So they encouraged the Romans to celebrate the new holiday.  Go to church, have a nice meal, think about God (the one and only, not the grand collection), do some praying.

And the Romans said, “Yeah, ok.”  And they did the Christian thing.  Then immediately went back to drinking, gambling, and screwing.  Even through the 1300’s writers were condemning caroling as “lewd”.  Apparently it wasn’t exactly “Silent Night”.  More like you and your buddies doing a drunken rendition of “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” after a long night of confidence juice.

Now it will get you arrested.  Then, it was just a holiday.

So this year, when you’re washing dishes after the family Christmas dinner, think about those old traditions you could be keeping up instead.  Getting schtuped on a craps table with a beer in one hand and a wax candle in the other, while your boss waits on you hand and foot.  Now THAT sounds like a holiday.

Phil Johnson

PS…. Wanna hear the Xmas song that got my band Roadside Attraction banned from ever playing Christmas In The Park in San Jose again?  Free download at:


Saturnalia – Christmas’s Cool Older Brother — 1 Comment

  1. Pingback: Xmas Nativity Scene | Phil Johnson of Roadside Attraction

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