Happy Saturnalia!

We continue the longstanding Volokh Conspiracy tradition of celebrating this ancient Roman holiday.

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

Today is Saturnalia, an ancient Roman holiday with a long tradition here at the Volokh Conspiracy, which we are now continuing at our new home with Reason. Admittedly, it's only a tradition in so far as I have put up a post about it every December 17 for the last several years. But, by blogging standards, that's a truly ancient tradition indeed.

The Encyclopedia Romana has a helpful description of Saturnalia:

During the holiday, restrictions were relaxed and the social order inverted. Gambling was allowed in public. Slaves were permitted to use dice and did not have to work. . . Within the family, a Lord of Misrule was chosen. Slaves were treated as equals, allowed to wear their masters' clothing, and be waited on at meal time in remembrance of an earlier golden age thought to have been ushered in by the god. In the Saturnalia, Lucian relates that "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."

This year, as usual, we have no shortage of strong applicants for the position of Lord of Misrule. The incumbent president and many other politicians of both parties are formidable candidates, indeed. Even more may emerge as the campaign season for the 2020 election heats up.

Happy Saturnalia to all the friends, Romans, and Volokh Conspiracy readers out there!


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  1. “Admittedly, it’s only a tradition in so far as I have put up a post about it every December 17 for the last several years.”

    I’m not sure you’ve captured the *full* spirit of Saturnalia.

    To have a real Saturnalia, students would have to run the colleges, obscene music would have to be played everywhere, gambling would have to be practiced in public, and…hmm, that sounds like any regular day to me…only without the corked faces, of course.

    1. Here in NYC, the air would be filled with the pungent aroma of marijuana. Oh wait … we have that every day too.

  2. #typo: The sub-hed for this post omits the word “tradition”.
    Hed: “Happy Saturnalia!”
    Sub-hed: “We continue the longstanding Volokh Conspiracy [tradition??] of celebrating this ancient Roman holiday”

  3. Great. Only problem is I’ll be billing 16 hour days all week.

  4. At the Starbucks, they didn’t have ANY “Happy Saturnalia” cups in stock. The War on Saturn continues!

    1. Some restaurants wage a War on Uranus.

      1. Don’t let ARWP hear you say that.

      2. Are you referring to Chipotle?

      3. You can ask for non-spicy, you know.

        1. It isn’t the spice that makes Chipotle run through you…

          1. True, but when it does run through you, the spice makes it burn as much on the way out as it does on the way in.

            1. The spice must flow.

              1. Send fifty legions of Sardaukar!

      4. Boy, am I glad I went to law school, so I can follow the intricate analyses on these threads.

  5. I really think that the Lord of Misrule ought to come from within the Volokh Conspiracy community. In the interest of democracy, how about an election? Put up Rev. Kirkland against ARealRightWingPatriot and you can’t go wrong, both are eminently qualified for the position.

    1. Serious question – has anyone seen these two in the same room together? Because I’m pretty sure they are the same person.

      1. Now THAT would be a really interesting case of multiple personality disorder! If they could switch back and forth at will, they could sell tickets!

    2. May I nominate myself?

    3. Hey, don’t forget OpenBordersLibertarian!

      1. Nah, he’s just a satirical poster, not really a troll. He also doesn’t grace us with his presence much.

  6. Mocking Christians with posts like this is another reason [of many] that libertarians are so unsuccessful.

      1. People are entitled to believe as they wish, and organized religion appears to be responsible for nearly as much good as bad in our world, but competent adults neither advance nor accept superstition-based arguments in reasoned debate.

        1. Based upon the level of enthusiasm for the AGW narrative, competent adults are in mighty short supply.

    1. ’tis the season for snowflakes!

      With Christmas everywhere you care to cast your eye, that you feel oppressed by a fun blog post is pretty impressive.

      1. Let’s just say he didn’t make it on to the X-Men’s Blue Team.

    2. How does this mock Christians?

      1. Its Christmas time. He is talking about a pagan holiday celebrated by the people who murdered Jesus. A holiday replaced by Christmas.

        Its not like Somin actually observes it. Does he post about other pagan Roman holidays?

        1. If I remember right, it was Jews who clamored for Jesus to be killed. Would you also condemn the Jews of Volokh Conspiracy for celebrating Hanukkah? I assume they eat Christian infants, after all, and we all know what gets put in matzah.

          Of course, it’s not as if Saturnalia was only celebrated during the time of Jesus. It was celebrated for centuries before and after, mostly by people who had nothing at all to do with the crucifixion. Did they bear some of the sin, only by virtue of being loosely associated with Pilate and his soldiers?

          So what if he doesn’t observe it? Shouldn’t that make it less offensive, not more so? Is it okay if he instead posts about Konia, the Greek version? Is posting something about Christmas mocking non-Christians who have had their holidays supplanted by Christian versions? Does it mock hardline Calvinists and other denominations who refuse to celebrate such holidays? Does it mock Puritans, who happen to be some of my ancestors? Should I be offended by your mentioning Christmas?

          And really, none of that says anything about how this mocks Christians. It just says why you don’t like it. Those aren’t the same.

          1. I thought it was a point of Christian doctrine that Jesus went on the cross willingly.

            Caution Christian Snowflakes! Mocking follows!

            Kind of a “suicide by Roman cop” situation.

            I hear he was having trouble at work, and had a general lack of success with women. Unmarried at His age, such a shame.

        2. From what I can tell, about 80% of the Christmas season behavior I observe is mid-winter festiveness, not religious worship. I’ll posit that even to most self-identified Christians (who do, after all, make up 75% of the American population), Christmas is less a solemn religious observance than the same Winter Festival celebrated around the solstice it’s been throughout human history, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

          So take a moment to reflect on how much of your Christmas, how many of the traditions you celebrate, have come forward through thousands and thousands of years from your most remote ancestors?shared from a very long time before anyone dreamed of Christianity.

          Societies throughout history have celebrated as the nights, which for months had been getting longer, start getting shorter again. That celebration existed before anyone dreamed of Christianity and will continue long after Yahweh and Jesus join Odin, Thor, Zeus, Apollo, Mithra, and Horus in myth.

          So to all of you, have a Tasty Thanksgiving, a Happy Hanukkah, a Smashing Solstice, a very Merry Christmas, a Cool Yule (you do know Yule and Christmas aren’t the same thing, don’t you?), a Colorful Kwanzaa, a Fantastic First Night, and great good fortune in the New Year!

          1. You see as much as 20% actual Christianity around Christmas? Where do you live, Vatican City?

            1. Vatican City is a bad example. Isn’t it shut down for Rapinalia? Gotta give those priests credit, the practice equal opportunity by raping boys AND girls. Generally different priests, but the same cover-up.

            2. perichpr, I lived in Colorado Springs for more than 20 years?closest you’ll get to Evangelical HQ outside of the deep south.

              At that, I’ll grant I was being generous in saying 80%. But I’m just a generous kinda guy when it’s not costing me anything!

          2. So take a moment to reflect on how much of your Christmas, how many of the traditions you celebrate, have come forward through thousands and thousands of years from your most remote ancestors

            Not many.

            Most modern Christmas traditions (in America) got their start in the late 1800s. There’s vague resemblance to earlier pagan traditions, but it’s about on par with the connection between Wicca (invented in the 1950s) and earlier pagan traditions (which is to say, not much).

            1. Hmmm. We’ve conquered the light-eating Winter again?from experience, we know that in a few days, the nights will start getting shorter again?so let’s celebrate!

              Let’s celebrate with torches and bonfires (lights in the darkness); with evergreens showing that life continues through cold and darkness; with feasts centered around gatherings of friends and family (and exchanging gifts); with performances of music, poetry, and retelling the stories both of our own personal/family/community history, and legends and myths about messengers from [the] god[s] proclaiming the birth of one who will deliver us (such as in the Ceremony of Carols I will participate in next week).

              Which of those did not exist before “the late 1800’s?” They’ve been shared by many societies long predating Christianity and bear far more than a “vague resemblance” to our current Christmas traditions.

              Invite me to your Christmas Party?I know the bass part to all the Carols. But please don’t say I can’t enjoy being part of an octet singing “Lo How a Rose E’er Blooming” (rebirth allegory, and the best bass part of any carol!), just because I understand it’s only a beautiful fantasy.

        3. Its Christmas time.

          Why Christmas time? The post seems just as close to Hannukah as to Christmas. And why “religious Christmas” rather than “American Christmas?”

          Losing the culture war has made some people quite Grinch-like.

    3. What weak faith you must have.

      1. I am not a Christian. I do however respect the religion.

        This post is certainly mild mocking but its illustrative of the contempt many libertarians express towards Christians.

        1. This post is certainly mild mocking but its illustrative of the contempt many libertarians express towards Christians.

          It’s entirely possible to respect Christianity and hold supposed Christians in contempt. It’s not even inconsistent.

        2. I see zero evidence that it’s mocking Christianity at all. Saturnalia is a fun story, and doesn’t say anything at all about Christmas just because it’s also in December and might be a distant ritualistic ancestor.

          It’s a helluva thing to have a victim complex on behalf of a third party, most of whom don’t seem to themselves be tracking the slight you’ve sussed out due to some larger narrative. Kind of kicking it SJW style, actually.

          1. “Kind of kicking it SJW style, actually.”

            That works pretty well for your side. Stupid to not adapt the opponent’s successful tactics.

            Though the responses to my comment seem more aggrieved than my brief comment.

            1. You’re like the Farrakhan for Christians.

              “Let’s bitch about something and then when people point out the bitching is stupid we’ll call them racists!”

        3. If your belief system can not bear a bit of mocking, then it’s not very strong.
          In any event, the intent may not be mockery, so much as satire, considering that Christians stole the holiday from the Romans. There is no historical evidence for the timing of Jesus’s birth being near the Winter Solstice; and there is lots of evidence that there was NEVER any census which would have required Joseph and Mary to go to Bethlehem.

          If he wanted to further the satire, Somin could posit a hypothetical intellectual property lawsuit by pagans against Christians.

          1. Early Christians were nothing if not practical. If you were converting people to Christianity, and they were used to celebrations at certain times, why not put the Christian celebrations at the same times?

            There really isn’t any theological problem and it makes the new followers more comfortable.

          2. Yup. To the strongly religious Christian, Christmas is the 2nd most important day of the year, after Easter (after all, everyone has a birth day but only One had a Resurrection Day).

            It’s been my experience that the stronger the religious belief, the less importance applied to the ‘merriment and celebration’ aspects of the Christmas season (more properly, Advent); and the more to the simple holy event itself. In this view, gift-giving is only symbolic (of the gifts to the infant Jesus), not materialistic, and anything beyond worship (trees, lights, sleigh rides, etc.) is irrelevant distraction.

            1. An interesting note as to when western Christians celebrate Christmas,

              It’s December 25th for the Catholic Church and it’s offshoots, but the eastern church (Greek/Russian Orthodox) celebrate Christmas in late January.

              Many have accused the Catholic church of settling on Dec 25th purely to pull in European pagan solstice celebrations .

              However, I have seen an interesting analysis that goes the other way.

              The Bible describes “Magi” or wise men as bringing the baby Jesus three gifts, gold frankincense and myrrh (note, the bible specifies three gifts but never actually says how many Magi).

              1. Continued:

                Now in that era Magi actually means something specific, priests of the Persian Zoroastrian religion.

                Now the analysis I am referring to looks at how long it would have taken in that day and age to travel from Persia to Bethlehem.


                1. The Greek Orthodox Christmas date is the correct date for Jesus Birth.
                2. Zoroastrian Magi leaving Persia around the date of #1 tipped off / guided by a sign from the heavens (the Zoroastrians were astrologers).

                Given the modes of transportation they would have had available in that era, the analysis concludes that they would have arrived in Bethlehem right around December 25th.

                1. “the analysis concludes that they would have arrived in Bethlehem right around December 25th.”

                  Right in the thick of the lambing season.

                  Then, of course, there’s the fact that Jesus was born during the reign of Herod the King, who is known to have died in the year 4 B.C.

              2. The reason the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox dates don’t match is simple. One uses the Julian calendar, and one uses the Gregorian calendar. The Gregorian calendar is more accurate, whereas the Julian calendar, over, say, around 2000 years or so, produces drift, as the solstices occur on different dates, later and later in the year as you keep going.

            2. It’s only extremely important to mainline Protestants and Catholics in the West. Reformed doctrines don’t like holidays in general and a few groups outside the mainstream don’t do it either. I don’t know how important it is to Orthodox denominations or Copts.

          3. “If he wanted to further the satire, Somin could posit a hypothetical intellectual property lawsuit by pagans against Christians.”

            The Saturnalia people would have to prove that their idea of a midwinter festival was totally original with them, and not ripped off from some other group.

            1. If it was patented, the patent has long expired. Copyright requires registration prior to filing suit. Trade secret protection requires efforts to maintain secrecy. So those avenues of IP suit are all doomed to failure. That leaves trademark.

              1. “Copyright requires registration prior to filing suit.”

                No, it does not. Registration is only required if you want to go for statutory rather than actual damages. You can sue for actual damages (lost sales…) without having to register the copyright. Of course in the majority of cases, statutory damages will be significantly higher, so registration is advisable.

                1. Jesus on a stick… it was simplified to fit into a single clause. In a case with no damages, suing for actual damages produces what, Matthew? (Hint: Ask the USFL)

        4. Not even Christian? Hilarious! I’ll let you know when I need your help defending my religion. [SPOILER: I won’t.]

  7. But be sure to have a *safe* Saturnalia:

    “If a time of merriment, the season also was an occasion for murder. The Catiline conspirators intended to fire the city and kill the Senate on the Saturnalia, when many would be preoccupied with the celebration (Cicero, The Third Oration Against Catiline, X). Caracalla plotted to murder his brother then (Dio, LXXVIII.2.1), and Commodus was strangled in his bath on New Year’s eve (Herodian, History of the Empire, I.17.11).”


    You’d think someone named Commodus would get strangled while on the toilet.

    1. (That’s the same link as in the post, by the way)

    2. I’ve always had my doubts about the truth of that whole Catiline conspiracy.

      Made for some badass Cicero orations though.

    3. It was Caracalla who was murdered on the toilet.

      1. I thought was Tywin Lannister.

  8. “During the holiday, restrictions were relaxed and the social order inverted. ”

    Haven’t we had that since Nov 2016? Does not seem like a cause for celebration in most circles.

    1. I certainly celebrate Trump’s inversion of the social order, as should anyone who pays Federal Income Taxes, or cowers in fear of Federal regulators. Not perfect, and his trade policy is idiotic and atrocious, but certainly a big improvement over the prior “social order”.

      1. Seems right. I was just thinking something like this.

        James Comey, who should probably be imprisoned for his outrageous lies and treachery, said “This is the President of the United States calling a witness, who has cooperated with his own justice department, a ‘rat’. Say that again to yourself at home and remind yourself where we have ended up.””

        So, Where have we ended up? The President calling out the abusive behavior of federal prosecutors, as seen in the shameful and politically motivated Mueller witch hunt, and his incompetent attorney who may have violated campaign finance laws through his own incompetence and then blamed it on the client to appease the witch hunters.

        Seems like a concrete improvement over Hillary Clinton smashing electronics with a hammer and bleaching hard drives under subpeona, all with the tacit approval of the DOJ and FBI. “Insiders fighting for insiders.”

        1. Watching right-wingers go down with the Trump ship should be entertaining (and a useful culling). Enjoy the political wildnerness, clingers!

          1. Please go play in traffic.

            1. Aren’t you the one lamenting the lack of Christian behavior at this time of year?

              1. No, that was Bob in Ohio.

            2. He can’t, he is not allowed out of the ward. It only gets out of his room for a certain amount of time a day and he spends it here via the internet. Just wait him out and his nurse will come with his meds and take him back to his room.

              1. It may be therapeutic for disaffected, vanquished right-wingers to have a “safe space” at which they can simulate being normal, and mainstream, and popular, and well-adjusted, and successful. Why must a libertarian site be commandeered for that purpose, though?

                1. I recommend an unlit section of freeway shortly after last call. Remember to wear asphalt grey!

      2. If there are people cowering in fear of Federal regulators, they should seek professional help.

  9. The Saturnalia officially was celebrated on December 17 (XVI Kal. Jan.) and, in Cicero’s time, lasted seven days (counting inclusively)?from December 17 to 23. Augustus limited the holiday to three days, so the civil courts would not have to be closed any longer than necessary (Macrobius, Saturnalia, I.10.4), and Caligula extended it to five (Suetonius, Life of Caligula, XVII; Dio, Roman History, LIX.6.4), the fifth day restored by Claudius after it had been abolished at one time (Dio, LX.25.8). Still, everyone seems to have continued to celebrate for a full week, extended, says Macrobius, by celebration of the Sigillaria on the last day of Saturnalia, so named for the small earthenware figurines (sigillaria) that were sold then (I.10.24).

    Interestingly, the Talmud (written in Iraq in the 4th and 5th centuries, but recording earlier oral traditions) reports that Saturnalia lasted eight days ending on the winter solstice (which in the 1st century was on Dec 25), and was followed immediately by Calendaria, which lasted a further eight days, which would mean it ended on the Calends.

    1. So they were instructing their readers in how *not* to observe pagan holidays?

      1. Yes, exactly.

      2. One of the reasons (a certain brand of) Christians give for not being beholden to various Jewish laws is that they were “cultural” ones meant to differentiate Jews from the heathens around them, but not actual moral laws about what offended God.

        This is often invoked to explain why the parts of Leviticus that prohibit things that Christians want to do don’t apply, but the parts of Leviticus that prohibit things that Christians don’t want to do still apply. I’ve been assured that if I just had more faith, this wouldn’t look so self-serving and hypocritical.

        1. Your shellfish-eating ways are an offense to God!

    2. The Jewish calendar starts and ends at nightfall (i.e. a night is part of the following day), rather than midnight as ours does. The Roman calendar numbered the hours starting from dawn (and restarted at dusk), and the night was generally associated with the previous day. However this is complicated by some events happening during the night being treated as part of the next day if they happened after midnight (birthdays and allocation of ritual sacrifices are attested). But this does means that a full seven-day period in any of these extends over eight days in any of the others.


  10. Saturnalia was so much fun that the Church had to rename it Christmas.

    1. And take most of the fun out of it.

  11. “an occasional ducking of corked faces in icy water …”

    Ruh-roh! Have a very minstrel-y Festivus!

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