Christmas is less pagan, and more human, than you think.
The Greek god Dionysus’ popularity spread quickly among decadent and loud-mouthed Romans - but they the name hard to pronounce in drunken Latin and renamed him Bacchus. According to the Roman historian Titus Livuis the rites were described as “A Hellene of mean condition came, first, into Eutruria, a low in sacrifices…” which is to say, “A low-rent Greek party got popular in Eutruria, where you’d expect these things to happen.”
They called the festival the Bacchanalia, which originally was annual “girls only” party. In Livius’ massive history of Rome, he writes that when things were getting out of hand with the Bacchanalias, a free Roman woman named Hispala Fecenia testified as to the orderly nature of the rites before the men got involved. Apparently the rites were held for three days a year, and by Hispala’s account, did nothing more objectionable than some ancient version of Margaritas, three-bean salads, and girl talk.
The High Priestess of Bacchus was selected by rotation and when it was Paculla Minia’s turn, she announced “as if by the direction of the gods” that men were to be initiated. This was probably innocent enough, as the men in question were her sons. Regardless, things went predictably downhill from there. The time of the celebration went from day to night, and jumped from three days a year to five nights a month. Livius continues his history in a straightforward manner:
From the time that the rites were thus made common, and men were intermixed with women, and the licentious freedom of the night was added, there was nothing wicked, nothing flagitious, that had not been practiced among them. There was more frequent pollution of men with each other than with women. If any were less patient in submitting to dishonor, or more averse to the commission of vice, they were sacrificed as victims. To think nothing unlawful was the grand maxim of their religion. The men, as if bereft of reason, uttered predictions, with frantic contortions of their bodies; the women, in the habit of Bacchantes, with their hair disheveled, and carrying blazing torches, ran down to the Tiber; where, dipping their torches in the water, they drew them up again with the flame unextinguished, being composed of native sulphur and charcoal. They said that those men were carried off by the gods, whom the machines laid hold of and dragged from their view into secret caves. These were such as refused to take the oath of the society, or to associate in their crimes, or to submit to defilement. This number was exceedingly great now, almost a second state in themselves, and among them were many men and women of noble families. During the last two years it had been a rule, that no person above the age of twenty should be initiated; for they sought for people of such age as made them more liable to suffer deception and personal abuse.
Livius writes about the proceedings with a hint of surprise and obligatory shock. But it’s hard to see why: Introduce a bunch of teenage boys to an all-girl party and they wind up drunk and horny is hardly a twist. The one Latin phrase I learned at Christian Brothers High School that has stuck with me over the years is Crapulous Sum: I’m Wasted.
Livius goes on to opine that it wasn’t so much the raucous goings on that freaked the Senate out, but the fact that most were sure their sons and daughters were involved which caused the panic in the statehouse. Whatever the reason, the genie was let out of the bottle. The government got involved and outlawed the party. In pure municipal government tradition, they had to throw in a loophole: you could throw the Bacchanalia as you kept the party to five or fewer. Which rather defeats the purpose of unnatural orgy.
With the exemption of the Emperor Augustus, the Senators were trying to be spoilsports. Having it get out that your son spends five nights a month polluting other boys was a big political liability in those days.
But there was more to it at play. Romans were very traditional minded: Almost anything was acceptable as long as you could find a “Roman” tradition behind it. While the sexual assault, bank fraud, embezzlement and murder that went on was objectionable, Bacchanalia was really doomed because it was Greek. The Senate thought the energies and livers of the Empire ought to be saved for a more Roman festivity: Saturnalia.
Saturnalia was the Roman pagan celebration that was the forerunner of Christmas. If you get to the brass tacks and holly of the matter, then it really wasn’t much of an upgrade. First century accounts of Saturnalia say this, “the most wonderful time, and the worst.” Like Christmas, Saturnalia was only one day, but it managed to take up an entire month in a way that patriotic holidays like the 4th of July and Thanksgiving simply don’t. Not that there wasn’t a patriotic element to both Saturnalia and Christmas. To quote an approximate translation of a first century Roman etiquette guide provided by The Economist: “The world’s only superpower will never preserve its booming economy without the wild holiday spending of ordinary Romans. In this consumer-led Golden Age, Saturnalia is no longer an indulgence. It’s a civic duty.”
In fit of assimilation with their conquers and new Roman overlords, a minor tribe called the Pindenissitae surrendered to Cicero on Saturnalia, to make a gift of themselves. They must have been minor, as Cicero wasn’t much of a general. He sold the 3,000 slaves at auction for 12,000 sesterces.
So the Romans took Saturnalia as seriously as we take Christmas, which is a shame. The Romans had an excuse, they were creating a culture from the foundation of the Greeks. We’ve had 2000 years to polish the turd of Western civilization. Still, like us, the Romans went to great lengths to not take things so seriously, but in hyper-competitive societies, we take a lack of seriousness seriously.
Yet the Roman attempt to not take things seriously went seriously beyond ours. The head of the Roman gods — Saturn — speaking through his high priest, the Pontifex Maximus, had to tell the Romans to settle down: “During the week the serious is barred; no business allowed. Drinking, noise and games and dice, appointing of kings and feasting of slaves, singing naked, clapping of frenzied hands, an occasional ducking of corked faces in icy water-such of the functions of over which I preside.”
The writer Ambrosius Macrobius wrote that his Saturnalia consisted of loafing around “most of January”, but most Romans just took the week off. The 17th — 18th of December were the official closing dates but then as now, most tried to squeeze out a little more holiday. While the courts and schools closed, retail was still on its feet selling those last minute gifts. Saturnalia was such a production that most Romans of any status received so many gifts that most were never even opened, but simply passed on to others. Along with the arch, concrete, the republic, and indoor plumping the Romans invented re-gifting as well.
Going to the temple on the first day was a must for appearances. The Romans were very pious people, but not in any moral sense of the word. Saturn didn’t really care if you polluted boys in March, drank too much, or burned down Carthage when the mood hit. What Saturn did care about was that he got his goat or candle wax or whatever sacrifices you could afford. The Romans being Roman, the temple rites concluded with a public banquet. Then the celebrants shouted “Io, Saturnalia!” and then it was time to get funky.
Formal togas were barred and everyone went around in a flimsy dressing gown called a synthesis. Without television, the lower classes went to the bawdy plays and watched Gauls and other non-citizens get castrated and eviscerated. Between shows sponsors plugged their wares. At the end the Emperor came out and threw wine vouchers into the crowd. Even the Romans, with all their genius, could not make a holiday special worth watching.
Those Romans of quality threw lavish dinner parties and they played dice like lunatics. A popular game was akin to “truth or dare” meets “strip poker,” where an appointed “king” of the game made bets on anything with a pulse and decided who had to tell secrets, lose their clothes and who got a turn on the serving-girl. According to the Roman writer Martial, “People will play for hours.”
Martial was something like a Roman-era Martha Stewart with his party and planning guides. But from the surviving evidence, he was a whole hell of a lot more vivid.
For the otherwise practical Romans, Saturnalia was horribly inconvenient. As Saturn spoke, through his Pontifex Maximus, “When I was king, slavery was not.” So there sits the social ambitious Roman man on the make, trying to impress everyone and his in-laws with his hospitality, and his slaves are running about, not picking up after themselves, telling you to go to hell and messing up the topiary by screwing in the garden. All this goes a long way to explaining why the rich underwrote that lousy holiday entertainment. They were trying to get the servants out of the house for a few nights.
Were I a slave, finding myself free of obligation and butt-kissing for three days to a week, and knowing full well that I was going back into the soup at the end of it, I might not make too much of the freedom. The Romans, though, thought taking revenge on the domestics for their flagrant misbehavior over the holidays was poor form. How good of a sport could they have been? As far as I know, Saturn says nothing about kicking the stableboy’s ass up between his ears when he gets back to work.
Not all the Romans got into the festivities; Seneca wrote, “the whole mob has let itself go in pleasure.” Like Bacchanalia, all that riotous living generally went no place good. A plot to burn down the senate house was uncovered on Saturnalia. The Emperor Commodus, the useless son of the sensible Emperor Marcus Aurelius, was strangled in his bath on New Year’s Eve. He was not, in fact, killed by Russell Crow, as many believe.
Eventually, with the onset of Christianity, the “reason for the season” behind Saturn seemed to pagan and the celebration was modified to a mere winter solstice celebration called Brumalia. Then the Germans sacked Rome and somewhere after that Christmas bought out what was left of Brumalia.
It was that German efficiency. Those people will invade anywhere.