‘Tis the season to sacrifice a suckling pig to Saturn, fa la la la la, la la la la!
I know, I’ve appropriated a Christmas song and turned it into a Saturnalia song. But back in the day, it was the entire holiday of Saturnalia that got appropriated and turned into Christmas.
But what in the world is Saturnalia?
I thought you’d never ask.
Saturnalia is one of many pagan holidays — including Yule and the winter solstice — that were scooped up by Christianity, mashed around a bit, and handed back as Christmas. Because Jesus was probably born in the early fall. It was an integral part of the Classical Roman religion, celebrated annually and enthusiastically every December from the 17th to the 23rd. If you’ve ever seen Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, you’ll know what I mean when I say Saturnalia is a bit like Topsy-Turvey Day.
Saturnalia revelries were meant to reflect the lost mythical way of life and to overturn Roman social norms. The 5 days of festivities began with the sacrificing of a suckling pig to Saturn (the former Lord of the Universe and the father of many of the the Roman gods and goddess) by any families wealthy enough to afford a suckling pig to sacrifice at Saturn’s temple in the Roman Forum. The statue of Saturn in the temple would have its footwear removed for the duration of the festival. After that, there would be a public banquet in the presence of a statue of Saturn which reclined on a couch as if it were participating in the feast. This signaled the beginning of a holiday from all work, including jobs, school, diets, and exercise regimes.
Following the public festivities, private celebrations continued until the 23rd of December. People donned Greek robes and felt caps rather than their typical togas. Gambling was legal, and slaves would be treated to banquets by their masters and allowed to be rude without fear of punishment. Continuing with the tradition of playing one’s opposite role for the duration of Saturnalia, many people would walk about in masks or hold masked parties. Romans also gave gifts to each other on December 23 (known as Sigillaria), and rampant overindulgence in food and drink became the norm. A sober person was a rare sight.
Eventually, Christianity came to Rome, wiping away most traces of the so-called sinful, pagan holiday. Nevertheless, some Saturnalia traditions worked their way into Christmas, like gift-giving and feasting. Christmas also took parts of other winter solstice holidays. The Christmas tree, for example, was stolen from a German solstice celebration.
I think Saturnalia sounds like a bit of a mess, really. There are records of some people being so overwhelmed by the holiday that they would leave town or lock themselves away for the entire week so they didn’t have to deal with the madness.
Saturnalia-type holidays have showed up rather frequently in pop culture, like the Red Hour Festival from the original Star Trek series, or that 2013 movie The Purge in which everything is legal for twelve hours.
So next time Christmas gets boring, you can always kick it old school and put on your felt cone hat for five days of drunken gambling and call it tradition.