Saturn, slip your fetters and come hither,
December tipsy with much wine,
Laughing Mirth and Wanton Wit;
While I tell the glad festival of our merry
Caesar and the banquet’s drunken revel…
Christmas, of course, does not belong to us.
‘Put the Christ back in Christmas’, we’re always told. ‘Jesus is the Reason for the Season’ they keep saying. Good people speak these things, earnestly and frequently. Unfortunately for such pious folk, Christmas is related to Christianity in the same limited way as Caesar’s wife is to history: only by marriage. Christ was never really in Christmas. In fact, when you celebrate Christmas by eating too much, drinking too much, feeling up the boss’ wife at the office party, driving the porcelain bus and/or spending a fortune on presents almost, but not quite, entirely unsuitable for the person to whom you gave them, you come rather closer to the real spirit of Christmas.
In the early days of the Church, Jesus Christ got along fine without a birthday. The Gospel writers were as unsure about his birth date as we are now: Matthew tells us that Herod the Great was on the Judaean throne when He was born, and then proceeds to narrate Herod’s massacre of the innocents. Luke, by contrast, times Christ’s birth to coincide with a Roman census. Herod died in 4 BC. Governor Quirinius carried out his census of Judaea in A.D. 6. Considerable interpretive latitude was thus already present in the narrative. No doubt the early Christians knew it and (sensibly) chose to leave well alone. In any case, birthday parties were worldly, pagan affairs, and Christians did not want to associate the good name of their saviour with any of them.
But when Christianity became a faith with claims to universality, the official religion of Constantine’s Empire, this lack of a birthday became something of an embarrassment. Besides, people still expected their twelve days off in December.
Lo! A multitude, handsome and well-dressed
Numerous as those on the benches, makes
Its way all along the rows. Some carry baskets
With breads and napkins and luxurious fare,
Others serve languorous wine in plenty…
Rome’s Saturnalia was a curious mixture of ancient fertility rite and social event. It celebrated the winter solstice, a time when people believed, perhaps, that they needed to make themselves a warm place. It also recalled – for all Romans – a mythical golden age in the distant past when the world was truly merry, a world without war, slavery or hunger.
Romans decorated their doorposts with holly and kissed under the mistletoe. Shops and businesses closed and people greeted one another in the street with shouts of Io Saturnalia! On one day of the twelve, masters waited on their slaves at table while, in the legions, officers served the ranks. A rose was hung from the ceiling in banqueting rooms, and anything said or done sub rosa went no further than the front door. That banqueting could get out of hand is attested to by Seneca, who tells of slaves detailed especially to clean up the spew. The government – in both Rome and the provinces – often laid on free public feasts. In the poem by Statius running through this piece, we’re told how the emperor Domitian held one such feast in the colosseum, somehow combining (and the organisation can only be marvelled at) vast quantities of food with entertainment. The Romans, I should add, had no weekend, no useless and unproductive Saturdays and Sundays, so they looked forward to their sanguinary feriae with considerable relish. The festival of Saturnalia was a time, too, for family dinners, for parties, for amours, for socialising, for wishing others well.
And, of course, the Romans also did something for which the proprietors of department stores the world over should be eternally grateful. They exchanged gifts. Originally (before Rome’s citizens acquired great wealth) these were small earthenware statuettes known as sigillaria. By the end of the first century, however, Martial provides a list of such gifts – with accompanying decorations in verse – that reads for all the world like the David Jones Christmas catalogue: backscratchers, socks, medicine chests, comforters, woolly slippers, board-games, gold-inlaid dishes, jewellery – among other things.
That the commercial aspects of Christmas are Roman in origin should not cause surprise. ‘No one in Gaul ever does business without the involvement of a Roman citizen,’ boasts leading lawyer (and later politician) Cicero in one of his defence speeches, ‘there is not a denarius jingling in Gaul which has not been recorded in the account books of Roman citizens’. Set into the mosaic floors of a number of homes in Pompeii are the phrases Hello Profit! and Profit is Happiness! The Romans were probably history’s first unregenerate capitalists.
Now, as the shade of night steals on
What song heralds the scattering of largess!
Here are young women stirred to lust, easily bought;
Here is all that wins favour with skill and beauty
Buxom Lydians, cymbals of Cadiz, shouting Syrians…
Statius’ picture is a beguiling one, and it is easy to forget that these same Romans could also be rather correct, formal people, militaristic and bloody-minded all at once. Saturnalia, like Christmas, was a time of licence, when people would wink indulgently at each other’s foibles or look the other way. We’ve all heard horror stories about somebody’s brother’s friend’s office Christmas party where the brother’s friend hopes that the boss, his accountant, the head of department, the fellow from the tax office – whoever – will have as little memory of the insults they received as the person who did the insulting.
Christmas is a venerable pagan festival, on a sort of permanent loan from Ancient Rome, and is, perhaps, the very antithesis of Christianity in the lines of its pagan decent. Some of the churches know this, and have left Christmas to the revellers, appalled as much by the Teutonic Christmas tree (which has its origins in Germanic and Norse tree worship) as by the libidinous connotations of too much wine and too little thought, and by the merry jingle of all those cash registers (well, merry beeping these days. The good old capitalistic bell of yore has gone, it seems, the way of the blue suede shoe).
How many years shall this festival abide?
Age will not destroy so sacred a season!
While the hills of Latium remain,
While Father Tiber flows, while Rome stands
With the Capitol you have made -
It will continue.
[Free translations from Statius' Silvae i.vi by me, from text as established in the Loeb Classical Library.]