the ancient days of Roman yore, the period of December 17th
through December 23rd was dedicated to the temple of the
god, Saturn. This celebration, known as a Saturnalia, was one
of the largest and most important public festivals of the day. The
traditional winter solstice customs included overeating, drinking,
merrymaking, and general tomfoolery. Early Christians dubbed the
word saturnalia as orgy.
Saturnalia by Antoine-Francois Callet
(1741-1823). Oil on canvas. Musée du Louvre, Paris,
According to Louise Clappe, author of The Shirley Letters,
in December of 1851 the good male citizens of the Sierra Nevada
foothill community of Rich Bar took it upon themselves to resurrect
the ancient Roman Saturnalia to cure the mining camp’s doldrums.
This group of young, womanless, men, tired of being walled in by
sky-kissed hills in dark damp cabins during torrential California
downpours, began their revelry on December 24th, and continued on
through most of January.
began at the Humboldt Hotel that Victorian Christmas Eve. New
proprietors had just taken over and it was time for not only
Christian holidays, but Roman ones as well. Red calico decked the
bar and the bowling alley was lined with new coarse white cotton
cloth. Broken lampshades were replaced with new ones. Mules
traversed down the hill with casks of brandy and baskets of
champagne. The hotel was lucky to have a real floor that was washed
for the first time just before the festivities would commence.
sun set, loud “hurrahs” came from an army of India rubber coated
Rich Barians. A 50 year old man with a tremendous snow-white beard,
dubbed as “The General” led the parade, waving a fire lit lantern to
show the way. The crowd settled in at the Humboldt by nine o’clock
that evening for an oyster and champagne supper. Great toasts,
orations, and musical crooning accompanied the meal.
on through the night into the next, and the next until the dancers
turned to drunken heaps along the newly washed bar room floor after
four full days. Some of the men were said to have barked like dogs,
some roared like bulls, and others hissed like serpents and geese.
Even the never before intoxicated, were inclined to imbibe for the
mock vigilante committee was formed by the drunken miners. The poor
unfortunates who stood outside were taken by a constable and those
who could still stand on their own two feet to court. At the court
they were charged with something amusing, and sentenced to treat the
crowd. Prisoners succumbed cheerfully to their fate.
the week progressed most of Rich Bar was too tired from the Roman
Saturnalia celebration to cause much trouble and all was relatively
quiet. New Years came around and the revelry broke out in even worse
fashion, spreading to the communities of Smiths Bar and the
Junction. For three weeks this went on until fiddlers fiddled
themselves into their respective graves. Oysters, brandied fruits,
claret and port wine supplies were exhausted, as were the mining
camp men. The ancient god, Saturn, was appeased for another winter.
SHIRLEY LETTERS From the California Mines, 1851 - 1852
by Louise Amelia Knapp Smith Clappe
Santa Clara University
Saturnalia - Wikipedia
Real Riches of the Season