Scrooge on Saturnalia

February 3, 2011

The winter solstice, when the sun starts to return from its southernmost excursion, is a date for rejoicing in almost every Northern Hemisphere culture, symbolizing as it does the birth of a new year and the promise of harvests to come. So the weeklong Roman festival of Saturnalia, established in 256 B.C. as a time for feasting, fun and the exchange of small gifts, was set to start on the solstice, which at the time was Dec. 25.The precise date of Christ’s birth is not actually known, though it is thought to have probably been some time in December, and for several centuries was not felt to be particularly important, but in the early fourth century there was a concerted attempt by the various churches to coordinate Christian beliefs. Thus it was not until around A.D. 325 that Christmas Day was established and Dec. 25 set as being the most appropriate date. So it was almost inevitable that the jollity, feasting and gift giving of Saturnalia became associated with Christmas long after the Saturnalia itself was forgotten.After several adjustments to the calendar to account for the 365.26-day astronomical year, the winter solstice currently falls on Dec. 21 or 22, but by now the 25th has become so firmly implanted that its original connection with a pagan festival and an astronomical event are generally forgotten.Following a different line of thought, as we age we accumulate ever more potential recipients for Christmas largesse: wives and sweethearts, our children, their children and maybe great-grandchildren, together with a raft of other dependents and associates. Some years ago, I totted up the cost of aguinaldos, gifts to relatives, friends and those who had supplied some kind of personal service during the year, and found I had to take out a bank loan to meet it.The problem seems to be that the three wise men brought extremely valuable gifts to Bethlehem – gold, frankincense and myrrh – to test the Babe’s credentials as god, healer and prophet, and those responsible for commercializing Christmas have seized on the example of the Magi as the standard for gift giving, rather than the trivial but symbolic gifts typical of the Saturnalia. There has to be an eventual clash between demand and supply, the point being brought home to me recently when a child given a mere calculator threw it to the floor on the grounds that he had been expecting an iPod.So where do we go from here? The church might help by running a campaign to de-commercialize Christmas, but the process is probably by now irreversible, as the celebration gradually returns to its Saturnalian roots in all but the giving of purely symbolic gifts. Whatever, I guarantee that Christmas a century from now will look nothing whatever like the jolly time we had when I was a child.Meanwhile, just call me Scrooge.

The winter solstice, when the sun starts to return from its southernmost excursion, is a date for rejoicing in almost every Northern Hemisphere culture, symbolizing as it does the birth of a new year and the promise of harvests to come. So the weeklong Roman festival of Saturnalia, established in 256 B.C. as a time for feasting, fun and the exchange of small gifts, was set to start on the solstice, which at the time was Dec. 25.The precise date of Christ’s birth is not actually known, though it is thought to have probably been some time in December, and for several centuries was not felt to be particularly important, but in the early fourth century there was a concerted attempt by the various churches to coordinate Christian beliefs. Thus it was not until around A.D. 325 that Christmas Day was established and Dec. 25 set as being the most appropriate date. So it was almost inevitable that the jollity, feasting and gift giving of Saturnalia became associated with Christmas long after the Saturnalia itself was forgotten.After several adjustments to the calendar to account for the 365.26-day astronomical year, the winter solstice currently falls on Dec. 21 or 22, but by now the 25th has become so firmly implanted that its original connection with a pagan festival and an astronomical event are generally forgotten.Following a different line of thought, as we age we accumulate ever more potential recipients for Christmas largesse: wives and sweethearts, our children, their children and maybe great-grandchildren, together with a raft of other dependents and associates. Some years ago, I totted up the cost of aguinaldos, gifts to relatives, friends and those who had supplied some kind of personal service during the year, and found I had to take out a bank loan to meet it.The problem seems to be that the three wise men brought extremely valuable gifts to Bethlehem – gold, frankincense and myrrh – to test the Babe’s credentials as god, healer and prophet, and those responsible for commercializing Christmas have seized on the example of the Magi as the standard for gift giving, rather than the trivial but symbolic gifts typical of the Saturnalia. There has to be an eventual clash between demand and supply, the point being brought home to me recently when a child given a mere calculator threw it to the floor on the grounds that he had been expecting an iPod.So where do we go from here? The church might help by running a campaign to de-commercialize Christmas, but the process is probably by now irreversible, as the celebration gradually returns to its Saturnalian roots in all but the giving of purely symbolic gifts. Whatever, I guarantee that Christmas a century from now will look nothing whatever like the jolly time we had when I was a child.Meanwhile, just call me Scrooge.

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