Happy Saturnalia! 5 Songs for the Original Holidays

Why do we celebrate the birth of Christ in December? There's no solid date on the actual birth date of Jesus, but you have to pick a day. Why that one?

Well, a lot of it has to do with the festival of Saturnalia, which begins today. Saturnalia was one of the most widespread holidays in the Roman empire, and was dedicated to the Zeus' (Jupiter) dad Cronos (Saturn). Cronos was a harvest god who ate his kids before they could try and topple him, but was also responsible for a Golden Age of social equality and easy living that was totally not made up or anything.

Anyway, Saturnalia was supposed to be about remembering this period of goodness, and also featured a lot of the things we do for Christmas now that have little to do with the savior, like lights and widespread gift-giving. When Rome went Christian, many of the Saturnalian festivities were tacked onto their new holiday dedicated to Christ in order to sort of sneak-convert the remaining pagan worshippers. These pagan trappings are actually why a lot of Christians resisted the holiday for a long time.

My point is that Jesus isn't the reason for the season, just a reason. A good one, surely, but just one of many. Let's all take a minute to remember the old gods. This playlist is dedicated to you!

The Gutter Twins, "God's Children" Two of underground rock's best front men, Greg Dulli and Mark Lanegan, got together to form Gutter Twins. Their album Saturnalia appropriately began recording on Christmas Day 2003, but the album wouldn't see the final light of day until five years later. It's a dark little record, but then again Saturn was kind of a dark guy. "God's Children" seemed like the perfect selection to mix old worship with new.

Meat Loaf, "In the Land of the Pig, the Butcher is King" Although I've portrayed the festival of Saturnalia in a very bright light, this was a Roman festival and you know what that means. At the Temple of Saturn, a priest would offer a sacrifice of a suckling pig to the god in order to gain his favor. It was a pretty standard thing back then, but it still seems somewhat barbarous to modern ears. Meat Loaf's "In the Land of the Pig, the Butcher is King" from Bat Out of Hell III sums up my feelings on the matter.

Sopor Aeternus, "Do You Know About the Water of Life" I listen to a lot of disturbing music, but man Sopor Aeternus is something else. They're the kind of act that would make Edward Ka-Spel want to tone it down some. It's goth music for people who want to make other goths feel the way normal people feel around us.

In "Do You Know About the Water of Life," Anna-Varney Cantodea sings the line, "Like Cronos I rigidly serve an illusion.. I attempted to unman Uranus last night/ Swallowing handfuls of my prophetic children, in terror I'm fearing the passing of time." Uranus was Cronos' father and grandfather, and Cronos castrated him for imprisoning him and his siblings in Tartarus. This stuff happens a lot in Roman mythology.

My Little Pony Cast, "Topsy Turvy" Let's lighten the mood a bit. One of the more amusing traditions of Saturnalia was the crowning of the King of Saturnalia. The King was supposed to issue ridiculous decrees such as dance naked that had to be obeyed. It's likely that this was a mockery of autocratic rule after Rome went Republic, and you can see similar practices in things like the Feast of Fools in the medieval period. The celebration was also featured in Disney's The Hunchback of Notre Dame, but I thought having the cast of My Little Pony sing "Topsy Turvy" instead would help clear the air after all the darkness.

NuBeat Children's Choir, "Christmas Candle" I know I may have angered some Christians in this article, but if you've read to the end, here let me say something conciliatory.

One of the things that Saturnalia, Christmas, and a host of other winter celebrations around the world have in common is the idea of lighting the world (figuratively and literally) as it darkens into winter. That's the idea. It's one big laugh in the face of increasingly long and dangerous nights. That's why the Romans lit their candles, why the secularists hang lights, why the Germanic peoples burned a yule log, and so on and so on.

What does Christmas mean? It means light. I'm pretty sure that's what Josh from Nazareth was trying to say a lot of the time: Let a little light shine.

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