The Boisterous Birth of Many Holiday Traditions
A look at the traditions and tales of the feast of Saturn or “Saturnalia”, which was was celebrated from approximately December 17th through the 23rd. This boisterous festival birthed many of our own holiday traditions such as feasting, snogging under the mistletoe, lighting candles, wearing silly hats, exchanging gifts and the occasional orgy/knee-trembler.
Masters waited on their slaves as it was seen as a time of liberty for both slaves and freedmen alike; there was also the election of a 'King of the Saturnalia', who presided over the merrymaking, akin to England's 'Lord of Misrule'.
Some readers may remember that the US sitcom Seinfeld (1989-98) began a semi-rival of the tradition in Frank Costanza’s (Jerry Stiller) ‘Festivus’, which has actually caught on with a few folk:
From Overseer of Debauched Revelries to Sacrificial King
The Lord of Misrule was usually a yokel/bumpkin-type or minor sub-deacon appointed by lot to be in charge of Christmas revelries, often descending into drunkenness and debauchery, similar to a Number 10 lockdown party.
Although banned by Elizabeth I, the custom still lingered on in some remoter places (Croydon, supposedly) until those killjoy Victorians finally put paid to it.
Noted anthropologist James 'Golden Bough' Frazer (1954-1941), hypothesized a bloodier side to Saturnalia and the Lord of Misrule. In Roman Bulgaria, legionnaires would pick one of their comrades to be Lord of Misrule for thirty days. At the end of that period his throat was cut on the altar of Saturn. Likewise, the British Lord of Misrule was said originally to be a sacrificial king slain for the benefit of all; witness the Wicker Man.
The Cult of Diana’s Slave Priest
Back in 2018, I travelled to Lake Nemi in the Alban Hills of Rome, where in ancient times the slave-born priest-king of the sanctuary to mythical cult goddess Diana Nemorensis, or ‘Diana of the Grove’ had to hunt and kill his predecessor to take the role.
Any time the sanctuary authorities deemed the cult was in need of a new priest king, a challenger was chosen to hunt down and kill him in order to take his place as rex nemorensis. The hunt itself was considered a sacred rite to Diana. (Green, Roman Religion and the Cult of Diana at Aricia.)
If You Attend a Wassail Ceremony, Don’t Forget Your Pileus
Saturnalia citizens wore the pixie-hat like 'pileus', a conical felt cap that was the usual mark of a freedman. Slaves, who were not entitled to wear the pileus, were permitted to don the merry titfer, so that everyone was 'pileated' without distinction.
Unlikely to happen nowadays on the estates of Messrs. Sunak, Johnson, Rees-Mogg and stable-heating Zahawi.
Who Doesn’t Love A Good Oaf?
But I suppose the likes of Johnson, Truss and Corbyn assuming positions of power had an element of Saturnalia. And tiresome performative egomaniac, the oafish Johnson surely deserves the title 'Lord of Misrule.' Here he is on 6th January 2024, dishevelled as always and showing off in his daft hat at traditional Wassail Ceremony:
Why Saturnalia Habits and Children Don’t Mix
The Roman God Saturn (Cronos in Greece), had a famously fractious relationship with his offspring, the Olympian Pantheon headed by Jove (Zeus). As Cronos took over from his father the supreme god Uranus by castrating him, the Titan feared similar treatment at the hands of his kids, so devoured them – with the exception of Zeus who was smuggled out and replaced with a rock. After doing his time in Tartarus, Zeus freed his dad and gave him the mythical Isles of the Blessed in the Atlantic (The Canary Islands/Azores or Bermuda) to rule in peace.
Wassailing Traditions Continue in England
Beyond Twelfth Night, seasonal traditions continue in England with ‘Wassailing’ a pre-Christian form of placating the spirits of the orchards in order to guarantee crops…
And the woodland spirits have to be placated…watch the beginning of 1990’s BBC1 TV mini-series The Green Man to see their murderous anger when roused:
Stephen Arnell’s Roman-era novel, THE GREAT ONE is out NOW on Amazon Kindle: