Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Forgotten Saturnalia

Two days before the start of Christmas (I count from the eve, like any good pagan, knowing the new day starts with nightfall), and it occurs to me that I don't think I've ever seen players celebrate the holiday inside the game.  Of course, it being Christmas, and most worlds having had no 'Christ,' there's an argument for this ... but then, the gift-giving and the celebration did not start with Christianity, but with the pagans.

It's a logical time for a holiday.  Whatever your world, if it's a sphere then there are probably going to be longer days and shorter days (even if the gods put the planet in perfect order to start, what a job it would be to keep the thing from wobbling!), as the days shorten, the weather gets bad and - wow - is that ever true for we in western Canada.  If it were not for the holidays around the winter solstice, the winter would be a long, intolerable affair.

December has a way of shooting the psychology of people into the new year, however, and towards spring.  For a month, you have little else to think about than running around, getting things ready and celebrating, forcing you out of doors at a time when no sane person would go out of doors just for the fun of it.  If you had stayed indoors, however, you'd be at the beginning of a very long bore ... a bore made more tolerable in February because it starts in January, and not November.

So, Saturnalia - this time right now - ought to exist even in a fantasy world, moreso because it's a celebration that derives from nature, and not some later philosophical religious ideal.  Christ is usually taken to have been born in the summer ... but when the early Christian leaders tried to stop their followers from continuing the pagan Saturnalia the followers ignored them.  The Christians were forced to co-opt it, neatly fitting the gifts of the magi into the gift-giving that had been going on for a milllenia already.  The original pagan practice is why so many of the aspects of this holiday don't float with the church view ... and it's why your world would probably have such a practice, along with celebrations of fire in the cold winter, and life-giving trees posted indoors, and carols and storytelling and drunkedness, even if you had no Christ.

But have you ever heard of player characters going after side quests in order to get Yodo the Dwarf the +2 hammer he's always wanted, or to get Halferan the Thief that little blackjack signed by the famous Grey Catter?  Do the players come to the sessions with brew and get plastered while planning a party for their hirelings, or bringing the message with mead and presents to the little orc children, who on this day can be forgiven for being born into a heathen race?  Shall there not be a tree cut from the forest and brought to the Silver Minnow Inn, and prostitutes brought off the streets to warm themselves by the fire and sing along with the baker and the guardsman?  Will not the players ease the burdens of their hirelings and march first in the snow, to bring flesh and wine to cotters living haplessly in the woods?

Is there no Holiday spirit in fantasy worlds?


Jason Carney said...

This is a great idea! In spite of the various narratives attached to holidays, they do seem to derive more from our relationship to the seasons.

In the fantasy fiction I write, I always try to take this "anthropological" approach to culture, and thus the question becomes, "Would there be a "Christmas-like" holiday culture considering its ecological situation?

I remember reading--I think it was in the introduction to a copy of the Arabian Nights I have--about the ecological underpinnings to a lot of Arabic mysticism, i.e. a lot of the fantastic elements of that culture's folk stories, so the argument went, are related to the hallucinations caused by heat exhaustion (i.e. genies, mirages, etc.). I'm not completely read to buy this, but the implications are intriguing.

The larger point that your post makes, I think, is that cultural "edifices" often derive from more primal, ecological causes. That's something really interesting for anyone who creates "secondary worlds" to keep in mind, whether they be Dungeon Masters or fantasy fiction writers like myself.

Let's consider an example: Dark Elves. If there were such a culture, what sort of holidays would they celebrate? Considering there are no seasons in the Underdark (I'm assuming this), then this means there would be no harvest holidays, or winter holidays, or celebrations for spring. Hmm... maybe I have just figured out why, in AD&D at least, they are consistently Chaotic Evil.

Anyhow: thanks for the thought provoking post!

Dave Cesarano said...

I whole-heartedly agree that holidays make perfect sense in a D&D game. Especially a sort of "yule" or "Saturnalia" or "Mithra's/Sol Invictus' Birthday" feast of some sort.

I get a lot of my inspiration from ancient religions and their holidays, as well as some still-existing ones. Even in a polytheistic D&D setting, I try to come up with short lists of saints for certain gods, a few holy days, etc. Since I'm currently running a Forgotten Realms campaign, some of the work is done for me in the numerous books on each deity. I pull from medieval feastdays as well, changing saints for gods, and doing some other adaptation.

One example is, since spring just started in my campaign, the PCs are going to see priests and priestesses of Chauntea blessing fields before, during, and after planting.

In game, Christmas would be repackaged as a generic "yule" holiday, probably sacred to Lathander, celebrating the long journey the sun will take as it begins to rise further and further north every morning after the winter solstice.

Xaos_Bob said...

While I strongly agree with the broad strokes of your post, I must disagree with the common (one could almost say ubiquitous) assumption that Christmas as a celebration was co-opted from older practices. I have been involved in primary-source research with a very respected historian on the history of Christmas. That his project will shortly be published as a book prevents me from giving specifics, though I can say that, according to the sources, the reasons for the placement of Christmas at this time of the year were considered ~despite~ concurrent celebrations, not as a ploy to usurp them. It was never intended as a means of making Christianity more palatable to non-Christian folks. There is also a tumultuous bit of theological debate at the heart of things, but in the end, the decision to adopt local Feasts of the Nativity into a phenomenon across all of Christendom seems to have been ultimately, and perhaps unsurprisingly, motivated by politics in an era of war.

I truly appreciate your work on this blog. It is good to see intellectual treatments on the pastime we love so much. Thank you!

jermwar said...

I believe the lack of many holiday themed adventures is due to a combination of the players celebrating the holidays for real, with the game most likely on hiatus, and the lack of the DM keeping track of time passing, and adjusting the weather for seasonal changes. Most campaigns seem to take place in an everlasting month of May/June. Coincidentally, perhaps, that is when summer vacation begins. Winter typically happens through travel to polar climes. Holidays are markers of the passage of time, and if time doesn't pass beyond refreshing your Vancian spell recollection, Holidays remain in that realm of campaign background that the players never bother reading. To everyone's loss, I might add.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Jermwar, you can take comfort in this: