Do you celebrate the holiday of Saturnalia? You don’t know what that is? It’s a weeklong period of lawlessness celebrated between December 17th and 24th. It originated in Roman times and holds a lot of similarity with our present day Christmas.
All over the Roman Empire, courts were closed, and the law dictated that no punishment could be brought against those who damaged property, injured others or stole from others during the weeklong celebration. The festivities would include choosing an “enemy of the Roman people” to represent the “lord of misrule.” Each Roman community would select a victim who they then forced to indulge in endless food and pleasures throughout the week. Then, once the celebration came to an end, they would brutally kill the supposed “Lord of Misrule.”
A contemporary source described the festival as “as a time of widespread intoxication with many Romans going from house to house—singing naked. Rape was widespread, and Romans would eat human shaped biscuits… these are known today as gingerbread men.
As the Roman empire embraced Christianity, the Saturnalia festival was turned into Christmas. However, there was nothing particularly Christian about Saturnalia, so Christian leaders named the day after Saturnalia to be Jesus’ birthday.
Christians had little—or no—success when it came to refining the long held practice of Saturnalia. The earliest Christmas holidays still contained drinking, sexual conquest, singing naked in the streets and all manner of hedonism.
Even as late as 1466, there were still those who celebrated the customs of the Saturnalia carnival. Pope Paul II, for the amusement of Rome’s citizens, forced Jews to race naked through the streets of the city. Before the race, they were fed as much as possible so their run was more difficult, and thus more amusing. This continued through the 18th and 19th centuries. Rabbis of the ghetto in Rome were forced to wear clownish outfits and to march through the city streets to the jeers of a crowd who took joy in pelting the poor rabbis with any missiles they could find.
This continued almost to the modern day. What started as a pagan festival in Rome may now have become a gentle holiday—but it took many, many centuries.