THE HISTORY OF CHRISTMAS SEX
This article was first published on GQ online here
Winter and sex goes together like mince pies and brandy butter. During those long, dark, cold nights in the northern hemisphere, we’ve have had to find something to do that would keep them warm and entertained. Our resident sex anthropologist gives us an unexpected dimension to christmas jumpers and turkey dinners.
Romans Gone Wild
For the Romans, one week at the end of December was reserved for merry making. From the 17–23 December every year the festival of Saturnalia celebrated the god Saturn. There are many similarities between Saturnalia and Christmas, including using boughs of holly as decoration, giving gifts and feasting. Like the office Christmas party, the end of a productive year needed to be celebrated in suitable style. The strict class divisions and stresses of being at the centre of the ancient world was tiring. Frustration built up.
Saturnalia was the perfect opportunity to blow off some steam.
At the end of the year, Rome was the place to party. Social norms went out the window as the city took on a carnivalesque atmosphere. Excessive drinking, feasting, cross-dressing and orgies were commonplace. The Roman poet Martial published during the Saturnalia as he felt that the liberal spirit caused by the festival made the licentious nature of many of his epigrams permissible. For one week, slaves wore pointy hats to signify them as recently made freemen and they could partake in the same salacious behaviour as their masters.
But no number of pointy hats were going to convince Christian Roman Emperor Theodosius I to let the festivities of Saturnalia continue. Between 389 and 391 AD, he issued the “Theodosian decrees”, banning all Pagan activities. Christian monotheism and monogamy was here to stay.
Back Door Santa
Sex isn’t high on the agenda in the Nativity story. The symbolism is a virgin giving birth, after all. Catholicism really hates the idea of sex. The festival that replaced Saturnalia’s lavish feasts and fruity orgies is very child friendly. And who could be friendlier to children and more anti-sex than Father Christmas?
Santa Claus, or Father Christmas, is an amalgamation of different persona and folklore, but his story begins with Saint Nicholas. A Greek christian from Myra in Turkey, Saint Nicholas was born 280 years after the birth of Christ. He was an orphan, left with an enormous inheritance from his parents. He earned his beatification through his life-long servitude to the poor, and his defiant nature in defending Christian doctrine during the Great Persecution when Christians were given the choice of renouncing their faith or execution.
Despite his faith making his life precarious, his charity was endless and his most famous donation was to an impoverished parishioner. Unable to pay for dowries for his three daughters, he had to consider selling his daughters into prostitution. Wanting to keep his assistance secret, Saint Nicholas threw three bags of gold through his parishioner’s window, one for the dowry of each daughter. His good deed was caught by the father on the third night. Variations in the story have St Nicholas throwing the last bag down the chimney or into one of the daughter’s stockings after their father refuses help. Either way, Saint Nicholas is paradoxically the patron saint of prostitutes, despite his hand in preventing three women from going on the game.
So no sex here either. Surely someone must have had the right idea?
Inuits do more than just rub noses you know…
Pre-Christianity, if you were in the Central Artic during the winter solstice, you’d be getting ready to harpoon Sedna, the Goddess of the sea. Luring her up with a magic song, you would spear her, only to have her invariably escape and return to the underworld. Showing the bloody harpoon to your community, you could then get ready for some tug-o-war, cross-dressing, feasting and wife-swapping. Franz Boas, the father of American anthropology described two huge figures disguised in tattooed seal masks and heavy boots line up men and women and pair them off in a paper from 1888. The couples then returned to the home of the women, where they would remain man and wife for the next day and night.
Now, we can’t get too excited here — sexual intercourse is only implied — but it held great significance for the Inuit as it favoured the hunting of game. Good sex meant a good haul of meat.
This exchange of women seemed to be a recurring feature of the winter feasts in the North Baffin area, and one that quickly drew the interest, and horror, of Christian missionaries. Gradually as they converted the Inuit to Christianity, the winter feasts began to look a lot like Christmas, with the wife swapping to go first.
How absolutely miserable.
Sex in your (Christmas) stockings
If your Christmas is starting to look as dry as that turkey dinner, leave the nativity scene to the kids and breathe some life into a few abandoned winter traditions with a not-so-virgin Mary.
It might improve your haul of meat in the New Year.