Mythos Monday: Roman Misrule, Pagan Yule, and an Attitude of Gratitude

I guess I’m in a bit of a holiday mood today.  I’ve got my tree up, my advent calendar open, and girlfriend is ready for business!

Being an ex-pat American and living thousands of miles away from my family has meant that I’ve had to redefine what the holidays mean to me.  Some family customs have taken on new meaning and intensity for me.  Others I’ve adapted to suit life in London.  Still others have gone by the way side to be replaced by new and interesting English customs.  The way I celebrate Christmas will never be the same, even should I return to my homeland.

And actually, that’s how Christmas evolved in the first place.  Christmas as we know it has been around for just 165 years.  That’s right.  Less than 200.

In 1865 an illustration Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, and their children appeared in the London News.  They were standing around a Christmas tree (a German tradition which had never caught on in Merry Ole’).  Victoria was a hugely popular monarch, and before you knew it, not only did every English household have a Christmas tree, but it had spread to the American East Coast, as well.

But winter celebrations go back much, much further than “Christmas.”  Thousands of years further, in fact.

Saturnalia, an ancient Roman holiday, was a time for giving “luxury” items to friends and family and seems to be the basis for “Santa Claus” and his presents. The feast of Saturnalia which honored the god Saturn was long established by the Romans before they invaded Britain, and was originally celebrated on the 17th December.  It was so popular that it eventually extended to a seven day long party. It was the most popular holiday in ancient Rome and referred to as “the best of days.”  It was a time of feasting, gift giving, and setting the conventional social order on its head.  Servants didn’t have to work and could gamble in public.  Slaves could wear their master’s clothing.  

Misrule was the order of the day.  “During My week the serious is barred; no business allowed. Drinking, noise and games and dice, appointing of kings and feasting of slaves, singing naked, clapping of frenzied hands, an occasional ducking of corked faces in icy water—such are the functions over which I preside.” – Lucian

But Saturnalia is not the only ancient holiday from which our modern celebrations are derived.  Yule was a winter solstice festival celebrated by pagan people (mostly Germanic and Scandinavian).

About AD 730, the English historian Bede wrote that the Anglo-Saxon calendar included  December 25 as the first day of the heathen year and wrote that the Anglo-Saxons celebrated all night long to honor the Germanic divine “mothers”:

They began the year with December 25, the day some now celebrate as Christmas; and the very night to which we attach special sanctity they designated by the heathen term Mōdraniht, that is, the mothers’ night — a name bestowed, I suspect, on account of the ceremonies they performed while watching this night through.

(Bede, De Temporum Ratione. Translated by Charles W. Jones.)

Yule  was was celebrated by the ancients as the re-birth of the Sun. It was a traditional day of getting together and feasting, the sharing of gifts and offering thanks.

Of course, as time went on and the Church came to power, Yule was swallowed by Christmas and Christian tradition.  Eventually even that was engulfed by commercialism and swallowed by greed.

Still, there is a new wave of celebrants trying to get back to the true meaning of the holidays, whether they celebrate Christmas or Yule (I’ve yet to hear of anyone celebrating Saturnalia, but darn, that would be fun!).

For me the holiday season isn’t about things.  It’s not about what I can get.  It’s not about tinsel and twinkly lights (Though I do love those!).  It’s about friends, family, and giving of myself.  It’s about thankfulness and generosity of spirit.  It’s about joy and love and happiness and, dare I say, glitter.  The holidays are about gratitude.  And if you live your life in an attitude of gratitude, every day is a holiday.

And so, my friends, what do the holidays mean to you?



21 thoughts on “Mythos Monday: Roman Misrule, Pagan Yule, and an Attitude of Gratitude

  1. Shea, this is a great post. We often celebrate two Christmases in Newfoundland. Dec. 25th, and Jan. 6th (Old Christmas Day) I often celebrate the Solstice with my pagan friends so I get three. I know, greedy, but as you say, it is about giving of oneself and enjoying the company of others. Mat your season be blessed.

    1. Three? That’s awesome! I may just have to come up with three Christmases myself. I think that the spirit of celebration brings good things into our lives and the lives of those around us. And there’s nothing wrong with that!

      May your season be blessed, as well!

  2. This was an excellent look at the holiday season again. It’s amazing that Queen Victoria was the start of the celebration as we tend to see it these days. “Stuff you Missed in History” has an interesting podcast on “Victoria and Albert” (, and they referred to this picture showing in the local news. It’s neat to finally see what it looked like.

    I didn’t know about the Roman Saturnalia, but wow that sounds crazy! It’s always fun to look over where traditions we see today come from, and to remind ourselves of how we got to this point. Great post!

  3. Personally, I’ll stick with Saturnalia. Society would be a far different place if every one was able to take a collective breather from the strictures of modern life. Family, friends and peace; great attitude Shea, right with you 🙂

  4. For some of us, it’s the solstice, though the solstice thing seems to cross a few traditions… but then, the changing of the seasons was important to folks back before all the fancy technology because it marked different activities needing done.

    Though will note, Santa actually came from a real man, not from Saturnalia. Santa Claus, or of course the original name, Saint Nikolaos. Our pronounciation of Santa Claus is just derived from a Dutch variant of the name, Sinterklaas (pardon me I’m cheating to get the spellings by hunting online). He was known for gift-giving, which is sort of how the whole Santa giving gifts thing actually started. From what I understand he was quite the philanthropist in general, but most remember the gift-giving thing. He is also, apparently, the patron saint of children. Which makes it amusing and sad at the same time when misinformed Christians start going on about “Satan Claus”, not realizing they’re dissing one of their own. *facepalm* But that’s my nerd moment of the day…

    In our household, we haven’t really had a chance to set traditions, mostly just been tagging along to the family occasions. Going to my parents’ place on Christmas morning is a standard (may end up being Eve this year since it’s looking like we both may have to work…) We have yet to have a solstice off to actually be able to enjoy that with each other, so we have yet to really settle into some kind of tradition, aside from giving at least one gift to each other and saving the rest for the day with the parentals.

    1. Thanks for the info on Santa, Karyl. I did know he came from a real person (though I didn’t know all that background – cool!). I should have been more clear that historians believe that gift giving was inspired by the Roman holiday (since they spread this holiday throughout the empire) and that the original “Santa Claus” was only carrying on this tradition. I am by no means an expert, only sharing what I discovered in my research.

      I, too, find the “Satan Claus” comments ridiculous for the same reason. Go nerd moments! lol

  5. For me, Yule is the promise of a new start. It is the longest night of the year — representative of everything we’ve dealt with for the past 12 months. To make it through the night, we prove to ourselves that the cycle of life, death, and rebirth is real — there is light at the end of the tunnel (Or, at the end of the longest night, anyway). For every negative, a positive; for every dark, a light. True balance. It is the very unbalanced nature of the longest night that makes us thankful for the good in life. And as the next day dawns, the days will only begin to get longer as the sun returns, bringing that promise I mentioned — of brighter days, both physically and metaphorically. Just this lil ole witch’s two cents 🙂

  6. I’m so with you. It’s not about presents. I don’t care if there’s a thing under the tree with my name on it. All I want is my family all together, all healthy. The commercial bits of Christmas are only a distraction.

    1. Absolutely! I admit I do enjoy giving to my friends and family, but I like using my creativity. Which often means something homemade or something inexpensive and meaningful that I’ve put a lot of time and thought into. But the most important thing isn’t the gifts, it’s the people.

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