December 23, 2011
Yahtzee and Christmas share a long intertwined history, dating back to their earliest forms over two millennia ago. Today’s holiday tradition of rolling a few games has its roots in the pre-Christian pagan feast day of Saturnalia. A Roman proto-Yahtzee dice game called Tali, or Knucklebones, was a Saturnalia staple. Early Christians fused their ideas onto the existing holiday to create Christmas and some traditions, like throwing dice, remain popular to this day.
The Christmas season has always been the busiest time of year for any Yahtzee comrade. The gathering of friends and loved ones, coupled with the frightful weather outside, combines to create a perfect atmosphere for indoor Yahtzee fun. A rousing game enjoyed in front of the fireplace with visions of sugarplums and Large Straights dancing in your head is hard to beat. And once you factor in the allure of mistletoe and eggnog, Christmas Yahtzee is an inevitability.
Even for people who disagree with its religious underpinnings, the Christmas season is one of the world’s most popular holidays. Exchanging gifts, returning to hometowns, and ugly sweaters are ingrained in the late-December tradition. This deep association of symbols and rituals has developed over centuries and continues to spread the popularity ever further, in both secular and pious manifestations.
Yahtzee is one of those rare games whose popularity continues to soar decades after its introduction. The ability to unite people in happiness is one of the fundamental qualities that enabled Yahtzee to endure for over 65 years. Many of its tabletop counterparts like Monopoly and Risk convey dark themes of bankruptcy and war. And the unfortunate natives of Catan, who were violently displaced by invading settlers, barely receive a second thought on game night. Yahtzee, on the other hand, continues to teach positivity, inclusivity, and real-world skills like math and tactical decision-making. It’s no wonder that the game remains a Christmas favorite. Like sleigh-bells, rampant consumerism, and indoor trees, Yahtzee is inherently linked to the holiday.
To uncover the true origins of the intimate connection between Yahtzee and Christmastime it is necessary to examine the genesis of the holiday itself. Indeed, the playing of dice games during the late December holiday season is one of the very foundations of western civilization.
Every good Christian knows that Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. Many don’t know, however, that Mr. High-and-Mighty was probably not actually born on December 25th. Most likely, he was born sometime in the spring, like the Easter Bunny. Early Christian missionaries, seeking an easy way to convert the heathen European hordes, struck upon the brilliant concept of slapping their own religious doctrines right on top of existing religious holidays, replacing the so-called false gods with Jesus.
Creating a new holiday to commemorate the birth of the Christian savior called for some major culture appropriation. As luck would have it, a perfectly fine pagan Roman holiday was just sitting there ripe for the picking. Saturnalia was a celebration of Saturn, the god of seed-sowing and agriculture. The holiday was observed around the winter solstice in late December as a means to ensure a successful spring harvest.
The celebration of Saturnalia commenced with a religious ceremony at the temple of Saturn and a great feast that was free to all members of society, rich and poor alike. Its popularity with the lower classes was enhanced by a loosening of the strict social norms that typically regulated Roman life. In many ways these norms were outright inverted. Slaves and servants were permitted to throw dice and gamble, while wearing colorful clothes and the hat of a freeman. Their masters would play the subordinate and serve food to their slaves, further adding to the hilarity. The slaves could thumb their noses, if only temporarily, at the corrupt hierarchical power structures that kept them in chains.
The societal role-reversal that played out during Saturnalia parallels the core Yahtzee principles of liberty, equality, and fraternity. Unfortunately, this aspect was not carried over to the Christmas tradition. But other rituals like the exchanging small gifts are hallmarks of both holidays. Not to mention the debauchery, tomfoolery, and drunken orgies. The Roman poet Statius described his experience at Emperor Domitian’s Saturnalia feast in glowing terms:
“Who can sing of the spectacle, the unrestrained mirth, the banqueting, the unbought feast, the lavish streams of wine? Ah! now I faint, and drunken with thy liquor drag myself at last to sleep.”
With visions of sugar plums dancing in his head, no doubt.
The popularity of Saturnalia continued to explode across the Roman world, thanks to its liberalized social policies, wild parties, and general merrymaking. It had even outgrown its origins as a single-day observation to become a full week of revelry. Shops and courts of law were closed during the holiday so that all people could partake in the festive hijinks. Public gambling was typically forbidden in Rome but no holds were barred during Saturnalia. The contemporary historian Lucian of Samosata made reference in 150 CE to dice games (and public drunkenness of course) in a description of the celebrations:
“…the serious is barred; no business allowed. Drinking and being drunk, noise and games and dice, appointing of kings and feasting of slaves, singing naked, clapping of tremulous hands, an occasional dunking of corked faces in icy water – such are the functions over which I preside.”
Lucian’s mention of “games and dice” as a principle element of the Saturnalia festivities, is a reference to an ancient game called Tali. It was an embyonic form of proto-Yahtzee that was imported to Rome from its North African and Middle Eastern colonies as soldiers returned from conquest. It initially gained popularity throughout the city’s lower classes but people from all walks of life rolled dice during Saturnalia.
Tali was played with an early form of dice called knucklebones, which were quite literally plucked from animal carcasses, usually sheep or goats. Known as Astragaloi or Astragals in Greek, knucklebones were the world’s original random number generators. But owing to the peculiarities of mammalian joint development, they are not true cubes - they can only land on one of four faces or sides - one flat, one concave, one convex, and one sinuous. Values were assigned to each face and this scoring system was often etched into the bone. Traditionally, the convex narrow side was called “chios” or "the dog", and was counted as One, the convex broad side as Three, the concave broad side as Four, and the concave narrow side as Six.
Knucklebones can be thrown like dice or played like jacks. Their gameplay features have even been imitated in modern games using asymmetrical dice, like Pass the Pigs. The Romans must have liked the sound of it because the game acquired a well-known nickname – Knucklebones.
Knucklebones continued to be used as the primary game equipment but Tali could also be played using traditional six-sided dice. This vegan version employed Roman dice crafted of wood, bronze, glass, terracotta, or precious gems. Four bones or dice were used and 35 different scores were possible in a single throw.
The scoring system is similar to Yahtzee rules and would be familiar to any modern day dice enthusiast. It involves rolling the knucklebones or dice in different combinations to earn points. Much like Triple Yahtzee and Yahtzee Texas Hold ‘Em today, a wide variety of Tali derivative games proliferated. The rules for a basic version of the game are below, but more complex variations are possible, including playing under Senio Rules.
|6, 4, 3, 1||Venus||Each face is different|
|6, X, X, X||Senio||One Six||6, 6, 6, 6||Vultures||Four-of-a-Kind|
|4, 4, 4, 4||Vultures||Four-of-a-Kind||3, 3, 3, 3||Vultures||Four-of-a-Kind|
|1, 1, 1, 1||Dogs||Lowest of the Vultures|
It has been speculated that there is a lost book of the Bible written by an unknown author, possibly Mary Magdalene, which portrays a young Jesus learning the trade of carpentry by fashioning wooden dice. With this side of Jesus in mind, it is not far-fetched to picture the prophet tossing around five knucklebone dice with his disciples. But until the pope declares the notion of a Yahtzee-loving, hippy Jesus as an infallible dogmatic definition, the World Yahtzee Institute cannot in good faith advance such a prospect.
Whichever holiday you may or may not celebrate this December, chances are, no one will once greet you with a “Merry Saturnalia!” And you’ll be hard pressed to find any reference to its classic festive trappings like gladiator battles or gambling with sheep bones. This is, of course, evidence of the War on Saturnalia, which must be stopped. Nevertheless, it is a perfect time to reflect on Yahtzee’s long history and its gaming origins.
Jesus was successfully given a new birthday at the end of December and an old holiday morphed into the Christmas season that we know and love today. Adopting and adapting existing rituals so adeptly from other holidays would have made Dr. Frankenstein proud. So when you round up the gang this Christmas season for a night of Yahtzee and heathen ritual, just remember that Saturn is the original reason for the season.
But if you’re ever tempted with taking a Full House on the first roll of a game, you should always ask yourself, “What would Jesus do?”