While we've celebrated Christmas and prepare for the New Year, it never hurts to learn new ways to celebrate these holidays. A good way to find new forms of celebration – ironically enough – is to look back into history. While in this day and age we have our own cultural context for Christmas and New Year's Eve, these two holidays are following in a rich tradition of Winter Solstice celebrations. One such celebration was a Roman holiday called Saturnalia. While Saturnalia is quite different from Christmas and New Year's Eve there are similarities and some of the forms of celebration could be used today.
The Winter Solstice
The Winter Solstice is a period of the seasons that occurs every year. It always takes place in December (this Year, 2016, it was on December 21). This time of year is announced by the shortest day and longest night. Throughout history many cultures have celebrated the Winter Solstice and they all celebrated it for, roughly, the same reasons. These people wanted to celebrate the fact that the days were going to be getting longer from that point forward. They were celebrating the warmth and sunshine that they were yet to feel. This is very similar to why we celebrate the New Year; we are celebrating all the joy we are yet to experience in the upcoming year(1). One of the best examples of this kind of celebration was the Roman Holiday of Saturnalia.
The Celebration of Saturnalia
When the Winter Solstice began to rear it's magnificent head in the Roman Empire anticipation would build. This was the time when the Romans would really cut lose and party. The time of the year known as Saturnalia. Saturnalia was a Winter Solstice celebration that had grown grander with each year since it's beginning. Historians say that, by the fall of the Roman Empire, Saturnalia had become a week of debauchery and lunacy. Whereas initially it was a holiday where the expectation of discipline was lifted and the everyday order of things was reversed(1). The first day of Saturnalia was December 17 and it lasted five days in total. On that first day the public celebrations began. This included an animal sacrifice, that people gathered to watch, and a public feast. This five day holiday also gave the Roman people a reprieve from work. During Saturnalia no one lifted a finger. Businesses weren't open, schools closed, the courts were not active, and no wars were declared(2). However, the more exciting side of Saturnalia was the private parties.
The private Saturnalia parties were the places that the spirit of the holiday shone through. These parties embraced the principles of relaxing discipline as well as flipping the regular order on its head. These principles were expressed in a couple of ways. By blurring the boundaries separating the Roman classes; slaves celebrated with their masters on Saturnalia. Role reversal was also embraced on Saturnalia; slaves would often disrespect and criticize their master during this holiday(2). Beyond these expressions of jubilation, Rome was generally engulfed in celebration. People would dress in brightly colored robes and conical hats, which symbolized freedom. On Saturnalia, it was encouraged for merry-makers to engage in gluttonous eating frenzies and to drink their fill. Now, historians have come to a general consensus that Saturnalia fell further and further into debauchery as the years went on(2). One could see how that could easily happen. The spirit of the holiday lends itself to chaos; reversing the accepted order and letting go of discipline. This is a decent recipe for debauchery and chaos. However, in order to deduce what is meant by debauchery and chaos we need context. We need to know what the Romans usually accepted.
Contemplate the term debauchery, what comes to mind? I think of intoxication and sex. On Saturnalia the intoxication is well documented. The Romans would imbibe to no end on this holiday, it was part of eating and drinking to their heart's content(2). We share that in our celebrations of Christmas and New Year's Eve. However, that leaves sex and in order to figure out what would be debaucherous sex in Rome we need to look at Roman sexual habits. Romans did not view sex as an expression of love or as a bonding experience. To them sex was when the primitive side of human nature reared its head. In fact, as long as it didn't get them in any kind of trouble they couldn't see why they wouldn't have multiple sex partners. There wasn't enough shame to prevent a Roman from trying any sex act. However, sex was still seen as a private thing. Therefore, it was impolite to talk about(3). Talking about sex was not the only taboo attached to sex within Roman culture.
There were very specific Roman taboos attached to sex. For Instance, no one was supposed to have sex during the day, unless you were a newlywed couple. It was also taboo for men to display weakness. This was taboo inside and outside of the boudoir. The Roman definition of weakness included showing too much affection for anyone or indulging in vices too often. Partaking in such things would get a man labeled as weak or effeminate. Interestingly enough, gay sex was not frowned upon in Rome. However, being the passive partner (the bottom) in gay sex was frowned upon; it was seen as feminine(4). However, cross dressing was not seen as too feminine and was accepted within the upper class of Roman society. Emperor Julius Cesar lived as a woman for a time, at the tender age of twenty, in the court of King Nicomedes IV. Another two emperors were also cross dressers. Both Caligula and Tiberius would dress as women to entertain guests at parties. On another occasion Emperor Nero married a young, castrated slave and forced him to dress in drag as his Empress(5). While Rome was rather permissive when it came to sex there were lines that weren't to be crossed. Romans were not meant to talk about sex, have sex during the day, and the men weren't supposed to show weakness during sex. However oddly specific and random those lines were, they still existed. In order for sex to count as debauchery in Rome it would need to cross these lines.
By using our imaginations we can come up with scenarios that historians would count as debauchery in ancient Rome. All we need to keep in mind are the Roman sexual taboos, by crossing those lines we enter into the territory of the debauched sex that took place on Saturnalia. The first one is easy, no sex during the day time(4). Breaking this rule would fit perfectly into the Saturnalia theme of reversing the regular order. By fucking in broad daylight you are reversing the hands of the sexy-clock. The second is also simple, keeping sex private(3). Breaking this social command is also reversing the usual order. It wouldn't be difficult to break it either, all you need to do is bring up sex in conversation. The extreme way to break this taboo would be to have sex in front of people. The final line to cross would for the men to show weakness during Saturnalia. This is probably the part that is most open to interpretation. However, we know that Romans considered it weakness to behave in a feminine manner: showing too much affection, bottoming in gay sex, or/and indulging too much(4). One interpretation of showing too much affection would be for the Roman man to go down on a woman and perform cunnilingus. The Roman man could also double down by sucking the dick of a nearby gentleman. We also need to take into consideration that historians say this debauchery reached its apex closest to the final days of the Empire(2). With that in mind, I imagine that on the Saturnalia just before the fall of the Roman Empire people were having sex in daylight out in the streets, as well as at parties. I imagine men taking turns making love to each other at these parties. As well as going down on women in front of cheering crowds. All the while food abounded and liquor flowed freely. While slaves mingled with senators among the merriment.
Conclusion for Modern Celebrations
In this current era an exact replication of a Saturnalia celebration would not go over well. I doubt an animal sacrifice could be considered ethical. Also, we have different taboos regarding sex than the Romans did. However, I do think it would be interesting to celebrate the holiday season by the embracing the concepts of reversing order and and shrugging off discipline. We already share the shrugging off of discipline during our celebrations. People take time off of work, they eat and drink to their heart's content, etc. Why not combine this with a little role reversal during the holidays and apply it to sex. If you're naturally dominant during sex then try being submissive. Break whatever taboos that you can think of. Try anal for Christmas. Put a butt plug in during New Year's Eve. Ring in the New Year by timing an orgasm to midnight. Why not use an incredibly powerful vibrator to do it? Why not celebrate by trying new things? I truly think that we could all improve upon our celebration of these holidays by looking into the past for new ideas.
"Holidays and Traditions Around the December Solstice,” accessed on December 27, 2016, https://www.timeanddate.com/calendar/december-solstice-customs.html
“Saturnalia,” accessed on December 27, 2016, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saturnalia
“Household Sex,” accessed on December 27, 2016, http://www.roman-empire.net/society/soc-household.html
“Sexuality in The Roman Empire,” accessed on December 27, 2016, http://www.humanitiesresource.com/classical/articles/roman_sexuality.htm
“In Bed With the Romans: A Brief History of Sex in Ancient Rome,” accessed on December 27, 2016, http://www.historyextra.com/article/international-history/bed-romans-brief-history-sex-ancient-rome