Saturnalia with the Romans


We are in the midst of Saturnalia, so consider this article by Classics scholar Mary Beard on “Five Things the Romans Did at Christmas.”

The headline was just to grab you, because she begins, “OK, the Romans didn’t actually have Christmas. And even Christian Romans didn’t celebrate Jesus’ birthday on 25 December until at least the fourth century AD. ”

Another sample:

A few Roman writers enter into the spirit of the occasion. Catullus, for example, called it “the best of days”. But mostly they were supercilious lot, complaining about the forced jollity and the forced shut-down (just like me . . .!). The philosopher Seneca tut-tuts about all the dissipation and fact that you can’t get any public business done.

I don’t put myself in the same class as Seneca (or Mary Beard), but I will probably be thinking on Thursday that I should go pick up the mail at our little post office . . .

Read the rest. And also what happens when she “takes the show on the road,” so to speak.

Trees, Animism, and Yuletide

Christmas tree discarded on public land in southern Colorado. (Photo: Royal Gorge Field Office, Bureau of Land Management)

Christmas tree discarded on public land in southern Colorado. (Photo: Royal Gorge Field Office, Bureau of Land Management)

I wanted to use the photo of the dumped Christmas tree with two different posts. Then I decided to combine them, so keep reading.

1. “Trees” is the theme of this month’s Animist Blog Carnival, hosted by Australian blogger Jay at naturebum. Tree totems, forest fires, Indo-European cosmology, and more!

2. Is there anything grosser than building up to the orgy of gift-unwrapping on December 25 and then declaring the whole holiday season over?A couple of days after that, and the local newspapers are telling you where you can “recycle” your Christmas tree.

But a book review in the British weekly The Spectator notes that at one time, decorations were left up until Candlemas.

‘The season of Christmastide has, in other words,’ [author Nick Grooms] observes, ‘shifted forward, as if it now expresses an impatient and premature desire for gratification. The result is that there are two cold months of winter following Christmas.’

At the very least, tonight is not quite Twelfth Night, unless like one Wiccan friend of mine, you count your twelve days from the winter solstice. So the colored lights will stay on a bit longer.

Revising the Story of Christmas

It is an article of faith (an appropriate word here) for contemporary Pagans that Christianity stole holidays left and right from our spiritual ancestors, particularly Christmas.

Here Mollie Ziegler at Get Religion, a blog about the critical examination of religion-writing in the (mostly) American media, gets into some of the nuances in the process of critiquing a typically breezy seasonal piece from the Washington Post.

Yeah, well, it’s certainly true that when the calendar was standardized, there was a push for Dec. 25 as the date to mark Jesus’ birth. But was this because it was a co-opting of Saturnalia? It’s certainly a theory. But Dec. 25 was one of the many dates being used by Christians to mark Christ’s birth and maybe not for the reasons you hear.

Some historians argue — read her piece for details — that Jesus’ birth was placed on December 25th centuries before “Christmas” was celebrated. In the early church, Easter was much more important.

Now before somebody says “Yeah, and ‘Eostre’ was a Germanic goddess,” we are not talking about Germans but about the eastern Mediterranean region (and Rome) when we say “the early church.” The Germanic tribes were mostly unaware of Christianity until some converted in the fourth century, right? And complete conversion took another six hundred years.

It is the news media, not the Pagans, that keeps the “Christmas started out as a ‘pagan’ holiday” meme alive. Maybe that is more of a secularist position — taking organized religion down a notch — that provides a convenient bit of cover for the modern Pagans?

And let’s not forget another group that contributed to the Christmas-is-pagan meme — the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Just today at the laundromat I saw a one of their Awake booklets, which made that very same argument, one that they have been making for many decades.

The Maskers and the Money

Krampus parades, both from Austrian ski resort towns. To what extent they are underwritten by local tourism authorities I do not know. (Thanks to folk musician and writer Andy Letcher.)

When I was 16-17 years old, I lived part of each year in Mandeville, Jamaica, up in the hills, during breaks from school in the US.

One Christmas break I was getting a haircut at a second-floor establishment in the center of town when one of the staff glanced out a window and shouted, “John Canoe! John Canoe!”

Immediately everyone rushed to the windows and looked down on the street, where no more than half-a-dozen maskers were dancing down the street. Their appearance must not have been announced in advance, for no one seemed to be waiting to see them.

I wondered if I was seeing a dying tradition. Wikipedia says,

The parade and festivities probably arrived with African slaves. Although Jamaica is credited with the longest running tradition of Jonkanoo, today these mysterious bands with their gigantic costumes appear more as entertainment at cultural events than at random along the streets. Not as popular in the cities as it was 30 years ago, Jonkanoo is still a tradition in rural Jamaica.

This was certainly “at random along the streets.” There did not seem to be any organized civic or touristic organization behind it all. In a way, that was more cool.

When things get organized and promoted for touristic purposes, the rough edges are smoothed off. Watching the history of the May Day hobby horse processions in Padstow, Cornwall, you can see how the local antagonisms and occasional violence mixed in with the parade are pushed down as it becomes more of a tourist event.

Since these Krampus parades occur in ski resort towns, I wonder how much of them is controlled by the maskers themselves and  how much by the ski-tourism industry. Re-created or not, at least they speak to archaic understanding of the solstice season not just as fun and feasting but as cold, dark, hunger, and “cabin fever.”  Among other things.

Last Yuletide News Bits

Re-purposed Santa figure, Pueblo, Colorado

• This is your brain. This is your brain on Christmas.

• “How the Lawyers Stole Winter”  — are we raising kids who can’t cope? No, it’s not Yule-related, directly. Indirectly, yes, I would argue. You have to embrace all of the wheel.

• No matter how “imagistic” it may be, Iraqi Christians are afraid to celebrate Midnight Mass. The current bunch of Islamists may succeed after 1,400 years of effort in chasing the last Arab Christians out of the Middle East. Expect them all in North America soon. (I have already met Egyptian Christians in a tiny town near me.)

• I was watching a re-run show hosted by travel writer Burt Wolf in which he reported that Christmas trees were promoted by 16th-century German Protestants who considered images of the Virgin Mary, Jesus, and the saints to be idolatrous and who wanted to replace them with something else. That is counter-intuitive enough that it might be right, and it matches what was going on elsewhere, such as England in the time of the boy king Edward VI. In that case, the Christmas tree does not qualify as a “Pagan survival,” at least not directly.

• And don’t forget Krampus coming to town.

Why I Feel Sorry for Christians at Christmas

So here it is, two days before Christmas, birthday of Christ the Savior, etc., and I am feeling sorry for the Christian clergy, at least some of them.

Along with Easter, this is their big religious holiday. The Incarnation of God—in their theology. And they have to beg people to put down the presents and turn off the flat-screen television and come to church.

“You don’t even have to get dressed up for the Savior of Humankind,” they cry. “You can come in your jammies!

Forget the “War on Christmas,” that is a big concession right there. White flag, don’t shoot! We know the prezzies are more important, but can’t you just tie your bathrobe and come to church for a little while?

True, some of the Anglicans and Catholics and those Orthodox who observe December 25 try a little harder. And a good Midnight Mass on December 24th appeals to the “imagistic” rather than the “doctrinal” mode of religiosity. You remember it with your body, with all your senses—the darkness, the candles, the music, the physical presence of other worshipers.

(But the talky-talk Protestants and the “we don’t really commit to anything” Unitarians can’t go there.)

Or this:

We have a 4:00 p.m. Pajama Mass on Christmas Eve. It’s a service dedicated to and directed by children from the congregation and from the community. We have a very cool combination of the very elderly, who don’t like to be out late, and the very young.

Because church is mainly for the very young and the very old?

The other thought haunting some Christians is the whole “Pagan customs at Christmas” issue. A reporter for a Christian news site interviewed me just the other day about that.

What I did not tell him was this: Your whole ritual calendar is a mess. If we contemporary Pagans know anything, it’s calendars.

Consider that if Jesus was born when shepherds were keeping watch over their flocks by night, he was born during lambing season—in the spring. His execution and resurrection also occur in the spring, during and after the Jewish festival of Passover (Pesach)—and its history includes the Jews in Egypt daubing lambs’ blood on their doors. There is this whole sheep thing going on.

So to avoid the spring-spring clash, the birthday is moved to the winter solstice—and I don’t care if the Christians copied Pagans or the other way around, really.

Mapping Jesus’ life on the annual cycle makes for an odd calendrical cycle. He is anticipated during Advent (late November-December), born at Christmas, shown forth at Epiphany (Jan. 6 in the West), killed on Good Friday, and resurrected on Easter Sunday. Then he hangs around for forty days, only to vanish on Ascension. After that, his disciples experience mystical illumination on Pentecost—celebrated a few days later.

And that is it—nothing for the next six months except various saints’ days, etc.—if you are in a liturgical church. For the talky-talk Protestants, there is not even that—in fact, not much after Easter.

Even in my Christian boyhood this arrangement struck me as poor planning. Why cram all the good stuff into less than half of the year?

Should Paganized Yule Carols Be Encouraged?

Evangelical Christians are always swiping slogans and memes from media or popular culture and Christ-fying them. On the Baptist Church signboard that I pass on the way into Pueblo, I have seen “Got Jesus?”—an obvious steal from the dairy industry’s “Got milk?” campaign.

Here are more examples of “Christ-ification.” (“Got Jesus?” is there too.)

So what happens when Pagans do it?

I am fully aware of the filk tradition, and Polyhymnia knows that people have been putting new words to old tunes since forever.

So when you put new words to traditional Christmas carols, everyone knows the tunes, at least.

Since “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” is a commercial song and not religious, why not (aside from copyright issues) turn it into the catchy “Faunus the Roman Goat God“? And the production values are pretty good.

But I keep going back to “Got Jesus?” on the Baptist church sign.

Are we not creative enough to come up with our own songs? Isn’t there something intrinsically second-rate about taking a song from the dominant culture and turning it into “We Three Witches,” even when the adaption is well-done?