Io Saturnalia! Gambling’s Pre-Christmas Past

Written By Robyn McNeil on December 29, 2022
gambling part of early christmas past

These days, when thinking about Christmas traditions, gambling is probably not our first thought, if it comes up at all.

But, once upon a time in Rome, gambling was part of ancient holiday celebrations alongside wreaths and gift-giving.

Traditions like Christmas trees, holiday feasts, and questionable Christmas sweaters* made the transition to modern life. However, Christmas gambling (for the most part) went the way of the Dodo.

So, let’s look back at before Christmas was Christmas, to gambling’s once traditional festive role.

Roman Pre-Christmas Winter Fest featured gifts, gambling

Long-before Christmas was a thing, Romans celebrated Saturnalia.

Saturnalia was an ancient Roman pagan festival celebrating Saturn, the god of agriculture. Initially, celebrations lasted a day, but over time, the festivities (marked in mid-December) stretched over an entire week.

As noted above, many traditions now associated with Christmas stem from the early pagan holiday.

Saturnalia explained

In ancient Rome, Saturnalia was the most popular event of the year.

The festival evolved from early Roman farming rituals linked to the winter solstice, most notably offering gifts or sacrifices to the gods during the sowing season.

During Saturnalia, regular Roman life came to a halt. Work, business, schools, and courts were all closed and social mores flipped. Io Saturnalia!” was the greeting, similar to our Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays today. 

To mark the celebrations, revellers decorated their homes with wreaths and greenery. And they traded the traditional Roman toga for colourful attire referred to as “synthesis.” (Sounds a lot like an Ugly Christmas sweater, no?)

Also of note: Saturnalia’s treatment of the lower class. Even enslaved people eschewed work and took part. In fact, the masters of each house often served those deemed the lowest members of the household during festival feasts. (Servants still had to prepare the meal, however.)

Instead of work, Romans spent Saturnalia festivities singing, socializing, feasting and giving one another gifts. They also played music and gambled, partaking in dice games and other wagering contests.

Famously described by Roman poet Catullus as ‘the best of times,” history recounts the winter celebration as the jolliest holiday. Reportedly, the festivities grew so riotous Roman author Pliny constructed a soundproof room so he could work during the celebrations.

Christmas takes over

Today, Western cultures derive many Christmas traditions from Saturnalia, thanks to Rome’s conquest of Europe. From the time of year to Christmas symbols and activities, Saturnalia’s influence on our modern Christmas has been many.

It’s an evolution that makes sense.

While Pagans and Christians co-existed, it wasn’t always a happy relationship. So, when Rome converted to Christianity, slowly co-opting existing holiday traditions could go a long way to encouraging pagan holdouts to follow along.

In any case, by the end of the fourth century, many of Saturnalia’s traditions became part of Christmas in a way we still recognize today.

In Greek folklore, gambling on New Year’s Eve brings good fortune

According to ancient Greek lore, you must shuffle the deck on New Year’s Eve for good luck.

The strategy comes with some risk: if you lose, you can expect challenges in the year ahead. But if you win, lore says to expect smooth sailing ahead. At least as the year takes off, anyway.

But, even for the loser, there’s optimism for a happy ending, said folklorist Gerasimos Rigatos. And it’s due to an old Greek saying: “The one who loses in the game of cards wins in love.”

But, more importantly, New Year’s Eve card-playing brings together family and friends. It’s a great reason to gather, celebrate the year past and offer a warm welcome to the next.

Whether you celebrate the season with gambling or not, we wish you a merry and bright holiday.

Io Saturnalia, and Happy New Year!

Photo by Shutterstock
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Robyn McNeil

Robyn McNeil is a Nova Scotia-based writer and editor. She lives in Halifax in an empty nest with a mischievous cat and a penchant for good stories, strong tea, cheeseburgers, yoga, graveyards, hammocks, gardening, games, herb, and hoppy beer.

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