So this is Christmas…

By skepticlawyer

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…

Statius, Silvae

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 by me, from text as established in the Loeb Classical Library.]



  1. GMB
    Posted January 10, 2007 at 2:33 am | Permalink


    Fair enough Mark. I understand where you are coming from.

    But I just don’t want others getting all NUANCED on us.

    I’m thinking about the possibility of others hiding behind these anonymous little lyncher wannabes.

    I don’t want people on your site acting like there is a sort of middle-of-the-road view to this.

    Better they don’t talk about it. They’ll only screw it up.

  2. Posted January 10, 2007 at 2:36 am | Permalink

    I’ll just repeat what I said about FDB for the record – the comment he posted on this thread is an accurate capture of the one he posted on LP before we deleted them all.

  3. Posted January 10, 2007 at 2:37 am | Permalink

    And we have no intention of allowing any discussion of this matter by anyone on LP.

  4. Posted January 10, 2007 at 2:48 am | Permalink

    I must admit I hadn’t thought of that angle either, JC – not until Graeme pointed it out.

    To be fair, I have become so used to the worst sort of scabrous lefties and scabrous journalists (both groups appear to have had a humanity bypass) accusing me of this sort of thing (and much worse things – Beatrice Faust compared me to Martin Bryant) over the past 11 years that I have become very careful about keeping records of what I do – both elecronically and offline.

    OLO have neither deleted the comments nor issued a retraction. One of the original defamers has retracted, but the other has not. I’ll be dealing with them tomorrow. As I’ve made perfectly clear to various parties, people who try this on nowdays will be paying my mortgage out if they don’t apologise and retract. I’m happy with retractions/apologies, though – as I pointed out further up this thread, I’m not vindictive.

    Parties who have done this and gotten away with it in the past are protected only by the statute of limitations. (Robert Manne wrote an entire book about me that is basically lies from front to back. I’m waiting for the bastard to be arrogant enough to repeat himself).

    It was easy for people like him to attack me then because I was poor, unsupported and ignorant. I’m not now. They are on notice.

  5. GMB
    Posted January 10, 2007 at 2:52 am | Permalink

    “Some of us would have gladly accepted your word (as though we would have asked for it) if you had no proof.”

    It’s worse then that. She’s been set up for this years in advance.

    And some of us might have doubted her. I would have had some doubt about it as sick as that makes me feel.

    That’s why anyone who capitalises on this has to pay.

    And the other thing is you, me, skeptic, and everyone else is going to make a mistake someday. But it won’t matter except for those who have been targeted by the left years in advance.

    Then they make one mistake and even all their friends abandon them.

    Like McCarthy. Set up by the communists and then the Washington elite and then the smug-leftist-set….. Two adverse TV appearances and he’s gone and hated decades after although he took the heat for the rest of us and never once broke cover on his information source.

    Even abandoned by all his friends.

    Reisman never abandoned him. But just about everyone else.

    Had she not had the 100% proof on hand you and me would have been affected because of all the advanced spade-work the left has done on this woman.

    And think of how young she was when they started.

    She was a young woman. A young SINGLE woman as far as I know.

    It’s because me and you would have been affected that she’s got to smash anyone who hides behind Liam and the others.

    And if nobody else says anything, she should wait and wait and wait and then make an example of these guys.

    Because when is this going to end?

  6. JC.
    Posted January 10, 2007 at 2:55 am | Permalink

    Play it a little “trader like”next time SL. Let them go on and think they have you. Let them write pages on the stuff and then rip their fucking jugular with a good legal swoop after the evidence is presented.

    In fact next time say nothing and go on vacation. Then when you come back spring the trap. You’ll catch them by the dozen. It could be a reverse class action but with a difference. This time the “class” is sitting at the defense table – en masse.

  7. Posted January 10, 2007 at 2:59 am | Permalink

    Unfortunately you can’t do that at common law, JC – the law expects parties to mitigate their losses, and doing the set up thing would be a clear example of failure to mitigate and as such would be frowned upon by the courts.

    Nice idea, though 😉

  8. GMB
    Posted January 10, 2007 at 3:02 am | Permalink

    “To be fair, I have become so used to the worst sort of scabrous lefties and scabrous journalists…..”

    DON’T SAY THIS. Don’t let them think its OK because it’s not OK.

    They’ve got no right to ask you for proof every Goddamned time.

    You stay happy sister.


    ‘Put your faith in (God) your friends but keep your (legal) powder dry’

    And start hoarding any such ordnance.

    Next time don’t make good with the online stuff.

    Just say “Try Me”.

    Make them apologise first. Then think about showing the online stuff only after every last one of those punks has apologised.

  9. GMB
    Posted January 10, 2007 at 3:06 am | Permalink

    Oh right.

    I was thinking along the same lines as JC.

    But they have no MORAL right to always demand proof like hanging judges.

  10. Posted January 10, 2007 at 3:19 am | Permalink

    No, no moral right at all.

    Indeed, one of the worst aspects of both the left and the leftist media in the mid to late 90s was a tendency to reverse the onus of proof – that is, anyone they criticised was automatically ‘guilty’ of whatever the allegation may be – whether it was racism, sexism, whateverism – and no explanation could do anything to lift the odium attached to the allegation. I experienced this up close and personal – I assume this is the ‘spade-work’ you’re referring to.

    Of course, the lefties – including lots of the people who had a go at me – are currently copping a fearful bollocking at the hands of righty attack dogs like the Bolta, and they don’t like it.

    At least, however, the righties are generally mockers rather than maulers, and seldom go around reversing the onus of proof or assuming bad faith on the part of their opponents. The only righty attack dog who shares identical characteristics to those he criticises is Piers, who I find very, very irritating.

  11. Posted January 10, 2007 at 3:21 am | Permalink

    JC and Bird describe in stark but truthful terms what could have been wrought here: SL’s reputational destruction just for a bit of a lark – born of her assailants’ malice and mediocrity.

  12. Posted January 10, 2007 at 3:23 am | Permalink

    Oh yes, that’s the ‘damage’ that flows from the defamation, CL. Apart from the waste of a day I had set aside for writing (a legal opinion for His Honour this morning, and some novel this afternoon).

  13. JC.
    Posted January 10, 2007 at 10:16 am | Permalink


    You keep doing what you are doing, you seem to do it well and you offer great writing and ideas for free no less.

    You ever need me to open the safe for legal recourse over this issue just say the word.

    You wrote what by all accounts was a great novel at the age of 22 no less. Rather than enjoying the after glow of success some took it away from you and you’re still paying the price.

    You’re what seems by all accounts a smart, decent, open hearted gal and wish the very best for you.

    Get the legal gun out, pull back the trigger and wait.

    You don’t deserve this shit.

  14. Posted January 10, 2007 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

    Very much appreciated, JC. I will keep you posted on things.

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