It’s almost that time of year! A time of festivity...
That’s right! Merry Saturnalia!
Every December, ancient Romans celebrated Saturn (their god of agriculture) by reversing social norms. Roman slaves temporarily became rulers and rulers became slaves.
It was like a big ol’ “Opposite Day” – that included binge drinking, over-eating, crime sprees, and serenading naked in the streets…
Not to mention, all sexual, criminal and violent acts were government sanctioned for the duration of the festival — making the holiday more like:
During this time, the Christian Church was trying to up their game. However, being small and without the big pagan marketing budgets, they decided to hijack Saturnalia by sneaking in their own made-up holiday.
The church’s Nativity Feast (later renamed Christ Mass or Christmas) was a way for the church to stay relevant…
…while converting pagans.
And it worked!
Kinda. Although the church did win pagan souls for Christ with its holiday-hijacking, it lost control over how the Nativity Feast/Christmas was celebrated. Christmas simply became Saturnalia by another name. Surely, the church thought, those old drinking, looting and criminal traditions would fade away and be replaced with somber, reverent and fully (or mostly) clothed Christian ways! But they didn’t.
The people LIKED to party like a pagan
By the 17th century, gratuitous Christmas partying had evolved, but not the way the church had hoped. While churches tried to hold Christmas services…
…the public’s celebration exploded into the streets with raucous carnivals and lavish pageants, transforming Christmas into something that was more like a drunken mashup of Halloween meets Mardi Gras.
Like the original Saturnalia traditions, flip-flopped social norms were prevalent. Those who were lower in social and economic status drove the festivities. They roamed the streets, using a literal “trick or treat” method to demand food and booze from their wealthier neighbors.
Desperate to put a stop to this raucous celebration, the Church started to backpedal their holiday hijack. They realized that mankind was far more deviant, drunk and perverse when they celebrated this one holy day than they were all the other days of the year… combined!!
“Well,” the Church thought, “the Bible never commanded followers to recognize Christ’s birth, so… maybe….we should just… BAN CHRISTMAS!” Shortly after, they got their wish! The Puritan Commonwealth overthrew the English government, and they did what Puritans did best– ban things! Christmas was on the chopping block! Any holiday greens or seemingly festive displays were promptly lit and burned to the ground.
Even ministers risked imprisonment if they held a Christmas service or alluded to Christ’s birth.
All things festive were yanked and squashed as everyone was ordered to treat December 25th like any other uneventful and unpleasurable day of the year.
But as I’m sure you already guessed, the Christmas ban proved temporary. The people wanted to party. The people NEEDED to party.
The Puritan Commonwealth was quickly overthrown and (with a boozy sigh of relief) Christmas was restored to the people!
Meanwhile, in early America, the war on Christmas was still going strong! Early American Puritans issued their own Christmas smack-down, fining anyone who remotely exhibited “the Christmas spirit.”
England, however, interpreted the Puritan’s hostility toward Christmas as a direct insult to the English way of life.
This resulted in England promptly forcing the Puritans to remove their ban. Once again, Christmas was legalized!!!
Until it was banned… again…
When America won their independence from England, they dropped all cultural and traditional ties to the motherland… Christmas included.
But Christmas wasn’t done fighting. It continued to creep into America through immigrants, drunken sailors, and randy teens who were looking for a good time. Christmas just couldn’t be squelched. It kept popping up over and over again.
So….it was finally asked… if Christmas couldn’t be terminated, could it at least be tamed..? What kind of Christmas miracle needed to happen to transform it into the holiday we know today??? Well, ironically, it wasn’t the baby Jesus who saved Christmas!
It was Santa…!
Sure, today we like to complain that Santa and shopping have destroyed Christmas, but historically speaking, they actually saved it! Santa and shopping actually played a critical role in making Christmas the family-friendly holiday we know today vs the rioting Mardi Gras carnival of the past!
This change started to slowly snowball when Clement Clarke Moore penned “A Visit from St Nicholas.” In his poem, Moore created a legendary myth that possessed the familiar Christmas rituals of inverted social constructs… minus the rioting and looting. Santa Claus gave Americans a way to safely and intimately celebrate and spoil those who were at the bottom of their own family’s hierarchy – their children!
And what about the Christmas rioting behavior? We have store owners to thank for helping clean that up! Shops helped police the carnival masses, making sure the streets were safe and inviting for their hoards of holiday consumers!
So maybe Christmas isn’t what we always thought it was. It’s been through some rough patches. Some ups. Some downs. Like all of us, it had some evolving and personal development to do. But there’s one thing history has shown us, Christmas is resilient. And if there’s a war on Christmas… Christmas. Always. Wins.
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