Queer Origins of America’s Favorite Holidays

Photos: wikipedia. During Saturnalia, Romans of all stripes would get in on, often in public.

Before Puritans decided that Christmas and Thanksgiving were wholesome family-oriented festivals, they were X-rated queer sex fests.

Historically, humans have found ways of dealing with winter, that gross time of year when it’s bitter cold, dark at 5 p.m., and depressing as all hell. Not only ways of dealing with it: we’ve found ways of turning into the best time of year.

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The span of time between Thanksgiving and Christmas is filled with excitement, consumerist fervor and eustress for many an American, no matter how bruised and battered we get during the contact sport that is the Black Friday to Cyber Monday stretch. The last months of the year are our designated time to chill, hang with family, eat a ton of food, and do practically nothing. But believe it or not, the holidays weren’t always so PG. In fact, both Thanksgiving and Christmas have some gay-as-hell origins.

Let’s start with Turkey Day. In addition to being a controversial holiday celebrating the brutal colonization of the Northeast, Thanksgiving is also kind of gay. We may think of it as a fun time to hang out with family (biological or chosen) eat a ton of gross food and get super drunk. But the pilgrims…well, they did all that too. But with a twist.

According to a 2015 Vice essay entitled, “The Pilgrims Were Queer,” more than a handful of early colonizers were having a real fun time on that city on the hill. While the Pilgrims came over as an exiled hyper-religious sext, there were still a few of them who were thrilled by the freer interpretation of gender roles set forth by indigenous folks in the American northeast. In a small town called Merrymount, some pretty advanced stuff went down.

Per Vice: “Thomas Morton’s founding of Merrymount remains among the most vivid: Merrymount denizens are described as having rejected the strict rules of the Puritans, declaring all servants and slaves to be free and encouraging intermingling with indigenous Algonquin people. Morton declared himself “Lord of Misrule” and his people were described by Nathaniel Hawthorne as a “crew of Comus,” a reference to a mythological figure during whose ceremonies men and women exchanged clothing.”

A depiction of a homoerotic Roman Saturnalia festival.

The gayness going on was frowned upon and, in many cases, prosecuted. However, the pilgrim’s anti-sodomy laws were a far cry from the English ones. Instead of using far-fetched religious arguments to talk about the impurity of the act, Pilgrims simply forbade sex that didn’t lead to procreation. But that didn’t stop anybody from getting with it.

“My reading of this is that the Puritans were like, ‘people do this stuff, but it really shouldn’t be public,’” Michael Bronski, a Professor of Practice in Media and Activism in Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality at Harvard told Vice. “‘We don’t want to go too far punishing them, because that would hurt the community.’ The most important thing is to keep the community stable.”

But let’s dial it back a bit. If the Pilgrims were gay, they were nothing compared to the Romans, who didn’t simply look the other way when guys were getting it on. More often than not, they joined right in. The origin of the holiday we know today as Christmas came from the Greeks and Romans, who had their own way of celebrating the solstice and ringing in the New Year. And it involved some sex. To the Romans, December 25 didn’t represent the birth of Jesus. It represented the birth of the sun, and thus became a day to pay tribute to the Sun god Sol Invictus. Before that, however, there was Saturnalia, a festival spanning roughly from the 17th to the 23rd of December honoring the mischievous God through copious drinking, carousing, and rabble-rousing. And would it be a Roman party without boys?

One emperor got seriously into the spirit of the thing. Elagabalus, a 220 A.D.-era guy who loved wearing dresses and described himself as his male lover’s “queen,” threw lavish parties involving boys, booze, violets, and pet tigers.

You know, your typical Roman night out. Saturnalia was also a time for gifts. But instead of doing what we do during the weeks before Christmas (namely searching frantically for last-minute gifts for people we forgot about) the Romans exchanged, according to Gay Star News, “statuettes of beautiful youths and ‘hermaphrodites’, phallic cakes, books of filthy epigrams, cosmetics and hair extensions for either sex.”

While there are a lot of things the Romans weren’t great at, we can certainly commend them for treating the end of the year like an extended bachelorette party of the highest order. So this holiday season, forget about decking the halls with boughs of holly.

Let’s all take the time to focus on making Christmas gay again.