What was Saturnalia?

Katie Lambert: And Sarah and I are both getting really excited about Christmas and talking about our favorite traditions. Every year, I take my grandmother to midnight mass on Christmas Eve, and that's the thing that really feels like Christmas to me.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah. For me, it's picking out a Christmas tree and decorating it and getting out all the old family ornaments that each have their own story, and that's probably my favorite part of Christmas.

Katie Lambert: But if you're looking for a different way to celebrate this year, we'd like to introduce you to Saturnalia.

Sarah Dowdy: It's a pretty awesome Roman festival.

Katie Lambert: As far as Christmas goes, it's pretty easy to imagine it as this one long tradition that just goes all the way back to the birth of Christ, but that's not really how it happened.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah. You'd think you have the nativity and then the December 25th date and the gift giving from the three kings or wise men, but yeah, that's - that's not quite how it works. The history of Christmas actually predates the birth of Christ.

Katie Lambert: It sounds like there's a little bit of a mystery there, Sarah.

Sarah Dowdy: Well, so we have winter solstice celebrations going on from a very long time ago. Early Europeans celebrated the literal rebirth of the sun as the days started to get longer, and they would do things that sound kinda Christmassy, like feast on livestock that couldn't be kept through the winter.

Katie Lambert: And the German pagans, of course, had Odin, the scary god who flew through the night cursing some and blessing others, so like a really horrible version of Santa Claus.

Sarah Dowdy: Bad Santa Claus, yeah.

Katie Lambert: Yeah.

Sarah Dowdy: And then, the north celebrate Yule Tide, which at its simplest is burning a giant Yule log for about a month or so until it turns to ash.

Katie Lambert: But that's not as good as Saturnalia.

Sarah Dowdy: No.Katie Lambert: And we're - we're gonna learn about why. In the early 4th century, Christians thought so, too. They needed a good December holiday of their own, so they chose a date that was near the festival of Saturnalia, December 25th, which was also the birth date of the god, Mithra. And at the time, the religion of Mithraism was a big competitor for Christianity.

Sarah Dowdy: Which is funny because the cult of Mithras is celebrating the birth of their infant god of light on the 25th.

Katie Lambert: So again, it's a good way to absorb a pagan holiday and make it into something more Christian.

Sarah Dowdy: But yeah, so the - the early Christians start celebrating the feast of the nativity on December 25th, and that's right around Saturnalia. And therefore, it picks up a lot of the raucous traits of the Roman festival; so much so that a lot of Christians think it's blasphemous to be so crazy in - while celebrating Christ's birthday.

Katie Lambert: Oh, right. In the Middle Ages, Christians would go to church and then they would party like it was Mardi Gras after that for days and days and days and pick a lord of misrule, a beggar, or a student and poor people would show up at rich houses and demand good food. And it was just a complete mess.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah. So we have Oliver Cromwell canceling Christmas when he -

Katie Lambert: Scrooge.

Sarah Dowdy: - seizes control of - of England. The soldiers even patrolled the street looking for people cooking meat to celebrate, and the Puritans in New England ban it, too. It's not celebrated in Boston from 1659 to 1681, so that's a pretty boring stretch of winters there in Boston. It finally gets a little tamer, more like what we know today by the late 18th century. And that's where we pick up all those Victorian traditions, which are sort of the staple of most of our Christmas celebrations today.

Katie Lambert: Right. But let's pretend for just a second that Saturnalia won out over Christmas. And what would it be like? So the basics of Saturnalia, it's on the winter solstice, like we said, and it's to honor the god of the harvests, Saturn.

Sarah Dowdy: Saturnalia was usually held December 17th to 24th, although, originally it was just one day. Right?

Katie Lambert: Yeah. And - and then it was extended to a week, and then, I think Augustus tried to cut it down to three days because he didn't like the courts being closed.

Sarah Dowdy: People - people didn't go for that, though.

Katie Lambert: Right. Caligula brought it back to five, but everyone pretty much did what they wanted for a week anyways.

Sarah Dowdy: So what was Saturnalia all about, though? I mean, who is Saturn? And why did he need to be celebrated with this feast of merriment?

Katie Lambert: Well, he, of course, ruled during the Golden Age of man, when everything was wonderful and the lions lay down with the lambs.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah. In Greek mythology, he's Cronus, and you might know him from the rather disturbing Goya painting, where you have this ravenous god eating his children because Saturn did just that. He believed that one of his children would eventually overthrow him, so to compensate for that, he ate most of them. Except his wife sneaks away one, Jupiter, or Zeus, who eventually does overthrow him, but we let that slide during Saturnalia, the creepy child-eating, and focus on that Golden Age of man.

Katie Lambert: Right. And this was a holy day, but it was also this week of feasting and merrymaking. And it was everybody's favorite holiday. Catullus said it was the best of days, and Sarah and I have decided through our research that there is no party like a Saturnalia party. And to prove it, we have a quote from Lucian.

Sarah Dowdy: So Lucian said of Saturnalia, "During my week, the serious is barred. No business allowed. Drinking, noise, and games, and dice appointed of kings and feasting of slaves, singing naked, clapping of frenzied hands, and occasional ducking of corked faces in icy water. Such are the functions over which I preside."

Katie Lambert: I would like to preside over the clapping of frenzied hands.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah. That sounds pretty good. I don't know about the ducking of corked faces in icy water.

Katie Lambert: No. I want no part in that, but the nice thing about Saturnalia, for us, would be that businesses were closed, schools were closed, courts were closed. And you absolutely were not allowed to start any battles or any wars. You were just gonna have to put it off for a week.

Sarah Dowdy: Seneca, kind of complaining, said, "The whole mob has let itself go in pleasures," and that's basically what Saturnalia was. It was also to celebrate the Golden Age of man, when men were equal. There was also a bending of social positions.

Katie Lambert: Right. Everything was topsy-turvy. Slaves didn't have to work. They could wear their master's clothing. People were allowed to -

Sarah Dowdy: Play with dice.

Katie Lambert: Right. You were allowed to gamble in public, which normally was considered a no-no.

Sarah Dowdy: Children could command adults, and interestingly, Juvenilia, which was a feast in honor of Rome's children, was near - held around the same time.

Katie Lambert: And you were allowed to wear your synthesis to dinner instead of your Togo, which we think sounds very nice. It was much less formal and a bit flimsier in material, which -

Sarah Dowdy: And colorful.

Katie Lambert: Right. In December, I don't know about that.

Sarah Dowdy: You could also pull out your pileus, which was a felt cap that normally freed slaves wore. But to celebrate and recognize the freedom of Saturnalia, everybody could wear their special felt cap.

Katie Lambert: Oh, and I love this part, too. You could pick a lord of misrule, so once you had your lord of misrule, he could command people to do pretty much anything he wanted them to, and you all had to obey.

Sarah Dowdy: But of course, like Christmas, there was a sometimes burden of presents that you had to get for everybody. Usually, they were wax candles, which signified the return of light after the solstice, or sometimes these little earthenware figures or faces, but you had to spend a lot for certain people.

Katie Lambert: Right. One article we read was saying it would be about a tenth of your income, so start saving, Sarah.

Sarah Dowdy: If you weren't giving candles or earthenware figurines to your friends, you could give them jars of plums, or what else?

Katie Lambert: Silverware, perhaps, or Silician socks from the beard of the feted goat, which is from -

Sarah Dowdy: Oh, that's on my list.

Katie Lambert: That's from a really hilarious economist article on Saturnalia, if you can find it, and even if you're not singing, "O, Holy Night," at Saturnalia, you could have a chant, like perhaps, "Yo, Saturnalia."

Sarah Dowdy: Yo, Saturnalia, which I think is our new holiday greeting - people are gonna hear us yelling that around the office.

Katie Lambert: No one's gonna understand at our office Christmas party. Just you wait.

Sarah Dowdy: Speaking of office parties, I loved this account from Olus Gellius - I think that is how his name is pronounced - and his Roman friends who would gather in the Athens baths and quiz each other on the ancient poets. And if you didn't get it right, the crown of Loral was dedicated to Saturn. And it reminded me of our holiday office party last year where we had a quiz game.

Katie Lambert: Oh, right. Candice, actually, our former Stuff You Missed in History Class co-host was really fantastic at Dead or Alive.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah. And enthusiastic about it.

Katie Lambert: Very enthusiastic. And a lot of our favorite information about Saturnalia comes from Acrobius' work, The Saturnalia, which is supposed to be an account of discussions in private houses the day before and on the days of the festival.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah. All right. Well, I think that's about it. Katie and I need to start getting ready for our Saturnalia celebration.

Katie Lambert: I have to go find my synthesis.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah. You wanna look good for Saturnalia. So to all of our listeners, Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukah, Happy Kwanza, Happy Holidays.

Katie Lambert: And Happy Saturnalia.

Sarah Dowdy: And if you wanna learn more about Christmas or the history of Christmas, you should check out How Christmas Works, written by me, on our homepage at www.howstuffworks.com.

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