Follow me in merry measure as I tell you about what is about to become your new favourite holiday, Saturnalia. Oh, what a queer festival it was.
What is Saturnalia?
Saturnalia, was an ancient Roman festival held in mid-December to honour Saturn, the god of sowing, plenty, and agriculture. Though Saturnalia initially started as a one-day affair, it quickly grew into a three-day — and then a week-long — festivity.
(Because if you’re going to do Gay Christmas, you’re going to do it right.)
There’s less solid historical information about lesbians and trans men, sadly, but of course they would have been there too.
Many of our present day Christmas traditions can be traced back to Saturnalia. Customs like decorating our homes with wreaths, singing, feasting, and gift giving all originated during this holiday. Other customs included schools being closed, business was halted, and the courts were out of session. Strict dress codes were loosened, with participants exchanging their togas for more colourful clothing, and even gambling was allowed.
Things got so out of control that the author Pliny “reportedly built a soundproof room so that he could work during the raucous celebrations.”
Lucian of Samosata listed “drinking and being drunk, noise and games and dice … [and] singing naked” as common Saturnalia activities.
(I don’t know, sounds kind of fun to us.)
This was still a particularly holy day for the Romans. Official rituals were observed, sacrifices were made, and the statue of Saturn — whose feet were normally bound with wool — was unbound to symbolise liberation.
This was the day the Sun was reborn and so was sacred to the deity Sol Invictus, the Unconquerable Sun. He was popularised around 220AD by the great, selfish, cross-dressing, transgendered Emperor, Elagabalus.
The beautiful young Elagabalus loved a good party. His dancing during the midwinter festival wowed the Roman legions so much they declared him emperor.
(He basically shimmied his way to power.)
But some Saturnalian practical jokes could go too far. One group of banqueting guests were literally suffocated by the weight of violets that were dropped through a false ceiling. Others might wake from a drunken debauch to find a pet tiger sniffing their crotch.
Some ways in which Saturnalia participants celebrated were, shall we say, less than traditional. The holiday is rumoured to have featured “lads running naked about the place, cross-dressing for dinner, tops becoming bottoms, masters waiting on their servants … sausages, wine, cunnilingus and fruitcake.”
I MEAN…. 😉
Role reversal isn’t just for Saturnalia: Elagabalus said he was “delighted to be called the mistress, the wife, the Queen of Hierocles,” which was his lover who was a charioteer.
Origin of Christmas presents
Everyone loves presents, and so did the Romans during the Saturnalia. They gave statuettes of beautiful youths and ‘hermaphrodites’, phallic cakes, books of filthy epigrams, cosmetics and hair extensions for either sex. Not just statues, either, but real life slave youths and hermaphrodites would be given.
In 63 CE Tiridates of Armenia came to Rome with his entourage of Magi (Wise Men) to end a drawn-out war and do homage to the Emperor Nero, that great bisexual showman of Roman history. They gave gifts, the wise men made their predictions and Nero sang some early version of Three Coins in a Fountain.
He extravagantly kissed handsome Tiridates to seal the bargain. And he closed the doors of the temple of Janus, the two faced god who represents beginnings and endings, including New Year and January, to symbolise peace on earth.
Christianity later became the dominant religion of the Roman Empire and so the birth of Jesus Christ was celebrated on 25th December and became more similar to the Christmas that we know today.
There are also many other Christmas traditions that can trace their origins back to Saturnalia and beyond.
Origin of Christmas trees
Greenery was used to decorate the house during midwinter festivals from ancient Rome to Tudor England’s Yuletide in the 1500s.
Christmas trees are an invention of the pagan North: a symbol of rebirth or, according to one tradition, a Christian replacement for the pagan oak in the spiritual lives of the ancient Germans.
But the best story about the first Christmas tree has to be this:
Long ago a young count of Luxembourg called Otto was famous for spurning all the young women of the neighbourhood. He preferred the company of his male friends and ‘manly’ pursuits.
Like all young men who reject the charms of comely maidens, one Christmas Eve he fell for a fairy who, in return, gave him a wondrous tree all decked out with silver lights and shiny baubles. It was quite the campest thing he’d ever seen, and from then on his heart belonged to those creatures who are neither one thing nor the other.
Origin of Mistletoe
Kissing under the mistletoe, has even queerer credentials, almost lost in the mists of the ancient lands it came from.
In Iron Age Britain, Ireland and Gaul, Druids were the ‘professional classes’ and religious leaders. One of their jobs was to gather mistletoe at the winter Solstice.
Many Druids were also gay, their otherness singling them out as special and holy. This was all good until that ‘otherness’ meant they were called on to sacrifice themselves to save the tribe in times of war or want (poverty and other struggles).
If that happened and they were called to sacrifice themselves, they’d eat mistletoe berries, the juice of which was thought to be gods’ semen. Do NOT try this at home. Mistletoe is poisonous.
Origin of Christmas dinner
Saturnalia was an enormous feast. Masters would serve their slaves, as all were equal in the golden age of Saturn’s reign.
The well-healed were supposed to let their less wealthy neighbours gorge at their tables, but as Lucian, a second century satirist, complains they could be very tight-fisted. His revenge was to pray all their fine clothes be eaten by mice and their pretty boyfriends’ hair fall out. To avoid this, the gay Emperor Hadrian preserved his lover’s locks by insisting on sampling all the trimmings from all the tables at dinners he hosted.
Saturnalian dinners were just a prelude to something even better than a feast… As the first century Roman poet, Martial says: ‘give me kisses, boy, wet with wine/… if on top you’ll add a fuck, Jove couldn’t be happier with his Ganymede than I am with mine.’
(Jove is also known as Jupiter who was the king of the gods and the god of sky, and Ganymede is a moon of Jupiter – so is he comparing the relationship with his lover to that of the relationship with Jupiter and one of its moons?)
Origin of The Crib
There’s nothing ancient about Jesus in his crib. The first Nativity scene was a piece of live theatre organised by Saint Francis in 1223.
As he moved ox and sheep and Virgin around to strike the perfect tableau, one of the people watching was Elias, the man Saint Francis had loved since he was a boy.
Francis spent all his time with Elias, sharing intimate secrets and calling him ‘Mother’. In a sweet letter, Elias even confessed he knew Francis’ body intimately. Elias was present at all the turning points in Francis’ life and death, but later biographers wrote him out of the story.
Origin of The Christmas Sermon
St Augustine didn’t write the first sermon, but he is credited with popularising the festival in the late fourth century, through sermons reminding Christians that on this day ‘God became man’.
Augustine wrote some pretty disgusting things about gay people too, but then he had the zeal of a convert. In his youth he loved a boy his age so violently and passionately and physically, he was devastated when the young man died. He instead turned to religion.
Origin of Peace and Goodwill at Christmas
The great tradition of tolerance and warmth that Christmas borrowed from gay Roman Saturnalia is with us still.
Jesus is a god of love, even if some of his followers forget that. As the pagans in the fourth century fought to preserve their ways and festivals, one of them made an eloquent plea to a Christian Emperor.
It serves just as well for a Christmas message:
‘We gaze up at the same stars; the sky covers us all; the same universe encompasses us. Does it matter what practical system we adopt in our search for the Truth? The heart of so great a mystery cannot be reached by following one road only.’
Merry Christmas everybody! Io Saturnalia!
Listen to our story on Saturnalia and more on the Christmas special on our podcast: