Everyone celebrates Christmas a little differently. However, most people in North America will have a ham, a drunk uncle and a time for exchanging gifts. The luckiest might get an office party with some good gossip. Many people reading this column would probably be glad if they simply didn’t have to milk that day, although plenty will.

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Ryan Dennis is the author of The Beasts They Turned Away, a novel set on a dairy farm. Visit his ...

There are some holidays that have dubious enough beginnings. Labor Day commemorates a bloody strike in 1894, Halloween was to keep dead spirits at bay and before Hallmark got a hold of it, Valentine’s Day originally honored at least one of several martyrs that bear the name. Not so with Christmas.

Christmas was all rock ‘n’ roll from the start.

Many typical Christmas customs, as well as probably their date, trace back to the Roman festival Saturnalia. Saturn, being the god of agriculture and time, was an important figure in Roman mythology. A good harvest was essential to surviving, so he was someone to be appeased. It was believed that Saturn ruled over the world during a mythical “golden age” of humans, and the festivities of Saturnalia were meant to reflect that legendary period. Hence, they took Prince’s advice and partied like it was 1999 (BC, of course).

Originally just occurring on Dec. 17, by the era of the Late Republic of Rome (133-131 BC), Saturnalia was a weeklong celebration. Although it is difficult to tell when the tradition started, it was widely practiced throughout most of the Roman Empire’s history. The day would begin with a piglet sacrificed at the temple of Saturn. Normally, the statue of Saturn was bound at its feet with wool. Once that was taken off and Saturn liberated, the celebrations started.


Much like holidays today, all schools and public businesses were closed, and the city took on a carnival-like atmosphere. Houses were decked with green wreathes, candles were lit, and friends and family exchanged gifts. Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of Saturnalia was its emphasis on switching social norms. Slaves were allowed to eat at the same table as their masters during the feast, and sometimes the masters even served the slaves. Gambling was permitted during this time, and drinking and other merriment were encouraged instead of frowned upon. The Saturnalicius princeps, or “Lord of Misrule,” was chosen from one of the lower members of the family. This person’s responsibility was to cause as much mischief as possible during the celebrations.

According to scholars, it is no mistake that our Christmas looks similar to Saturnalia (especially assuming the drunk uncle to be the “Lord of Misrule”). Eventually, the Romans became more Christianized. By the fourth century AD, Dec. 25 had been formalized by the church as the birth date of Jesus, even though some researchers believe that he was more likely to have been born in the spring. It has been reasoned that the church set Christmas at the same time as Saturnalia as a way to incorporate preexisting customs and make it easier for pagans to transition to Christianity. Hence, many centuries later, we are upholding some of the same traditions as the Romans.

As the Romans spread across the globe, so did various customs originating from Saturnalia. During the Middle Ages, Christmas was still marked as a time of heavy indulgence. During the same period, a boy would be elected “bishop for the day” in France and Switzerland, similar to the role reversals practiced before. Later, into the early Renaissance, many towns in England elected their own Lord of Misrule, typically on Epiphany Sunday. In other Western European countries, a small bean, coin or token was baked into a cake and whoever found it in their slice was chosen as the “king or queen of the bean.” These customs continued until the Reformation, during which Protestants thought them to be too Catholic. Since the tradition of the Lord of Misrule was banned by the Puritans, it never made it to North America.

It is important to respect history and pay homage to our past, and know that this Christmas you’ll be doing just that if you eat a few too many desserts or drink a little too much mulled wine. It is, after all, how the holiday was first intended. Perhaps even more importantly, you’ll be participating in the recognition that agriculture is important and that our success as a people is dependent on it. In short, enjoying the Christmas season is not only the right way to end the year but also a good farming practice.

May Saturn be kind to us in 2024.