I come from a long line of pagans, vandals, and villains. While the Greeks were establishing the basics of math and science, the Chinese were inventing gunpowder and the computer, and the Persians were laying the foundation for civilization itself, my people were living in small groups in the European woods, sacrificing each other and worshiping oak trees. When someone mentions Caucasians as a superior race, I giggle.
Like most primitive people, my ancestors worshipped anything they didn’t understand. Certain unique days and recurring celestial events were identified by someone with superior intelligence and given prominence and, sometimes, a holiday. I’m pretty sure none of those deep thinkers reside at the roots of my family tree.
The Winter Solstice was one of those days. The shortest day of the year, the sign of better things to come, the bottom of the valley, this day in late December was significant to numerous groups of primitive humans long, long ago.
Barbarians celebrated the Winter Solstice in various ways, everything from building monuments to setting aside some time for revelry. The Romans had an especially unique way of commemorating the time when sunlight was about to rebound. Their version was called Saturnalia, named after the god of agriculture.
Courts were closed during this time and anyone committing a crime was left unpunished, so people were encouraged to lighten up. The result was an extended drunken, naked orgy, similar to Black Friday at Walmart but with better looking people.
The holiday began to change when Constantine became Roman Emperor. He won the title in a unification bout with two other emperors and credited his victory to a conversion to Christianity just before the battle. Sort of an ancient Tim Tebow. From that point on, Rome was a Christian nation, more or less.
Converting the city of Rome was much easier than changing the spiritual habits of the inhabitants of conquered lands. Many barbarians wanted to remain loyal to the gods they grew up with. The Romans realized they could keep the locals a little more peaceful if they were allowed to celebrate the more fun aspects of their beliefs. So Saturnalia expanded to include many heathen traditions but also some Christian traits so the future inhabitants of Heaven could have a little winter fun without condemnation.
This all went really well for several centuries. Christmas became a period of drunken revelry for most of the civilized world. Fun was so abundant during this holiday the Puritans who settled in America banned its official celebration.
A Charles Dickens book about poor people, along with Coca-Cola’s advertising department, triggered a rebirth of Christmas spirit in the mid-1800s. Celebrating the birth of Christ and enjoying the legend of Saint Nick turned Saturnalia away from its roots.
Initially, this was a good idea. Quiet reflection on true friendship, enjoying the high point of a religious year, and watching kids’ eyes dance in wonder and delight are all better than chasing an overfed Jew through the streets of Rome. But the current state of Christmas is nothing like the beginnings of either celebration.
Today we have normal people becoming terrorists over two dollar waffle irons and wrecking their budget by purchasing useless gifts for people they barely know using maxed out credit cards. Behavior in stores and on highways is much worse than anything the ancient barbarians did to one another. Greed and selfishness are now the prevailing emotions during this time, along with a sense of relief once the season is over.
I’m sure there is very little support for a complete return to Saturnalia but it is time to readdress some of our current customs.
Besides, drunken, naked caroling seems like so much more fun.