The original “reason” for the season

For the western world, the holiday season tends to be a time of excess. This is particularly evident in the U.S. in which three holidays of massive expenditure and consumption follow one another in quick successive order: First, there is Thanksgiving at the end of November in which excessive feasting can easily devolve into sheer gluttony and waste. The following day is Black Friday, a pseudo-holiday (particularly for the corporate business world) in which millions of people nearly trample one another to death in the race to get the “best deals” (According to the Inquisitr, “the total fatality count from Black Friday between 2006 and 2014 is seven deaths and 98 injuries”. Finally, there is Christmas, the celebration of the day that Christ was supposedly born is celebrated through the exchange of gifts – and the resulting “draining” of millions’ pocketbooks.

Yet, there have always been those who have critiqued this excessiveness and managed to moderate if not escape the conundrum. The call to “give back this holiday season” is not uncommon and finding ways to do so is not difficult. The holiday season always coincides with numerous charities or food drives and thousands of volunteer programs, both secular and religious in nature. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, which is perhaps one of the most beloved works of literature and plays of the season, is an embodiment of this call to altruism in that Scrooge finds that the true joy of the holidays can only be found in giving to those who are less fortunate.

Many people may find themselves in an ethical conundrum during the holiday season – the classic problem of eating and having the cake too. To say there is no time in which one may be excessive or consume seems a little extreme to the everyday person. Yet, quantifying as to how much one may be excessive in comparison to “giving back” is a seemingly impossible feat. For many, this results in a holiday season in which peace of mind is hard to find. When one is enjoying his or herself, there, lurking in the background, is the guilty conscience, chiding oneself for being too selfish. When performing acts of service such as giving to the less fortunate, there is always the natural and hedonistic desire to be guiltlessly absorbed in pleasure (which is not necessarily immoral in and of itself). The difficulty in achieving balance between these two opposing drives may result in people running towards one of the two extremes: That of the “self-absorbed glutton” or the “self-destructive” saint.

This conflict between excess self-pleasure and selflessness seems like a uniquely western and particularly modern phenomenon. Many may conceive of this problem as the infiltration of an altruistic holiday by contemporary western materialism. They may argue that our economic success has made it possible to give more but made it more difficult in that we are less motivated to do so. Yet, a better understanding of the paradoxical holiday season can be found in its very history. By tracing the roots of the traditions of the holidays one can see that this conflict (between selfish excess and excessive altruism) has always been part of the holidays and may not have been as paradoxical as it seems today.

Photo Courtesy of: wikimedia

Photo Courtesy of: wikimedia

Christmas falls conspicuously close to the same days as the Roman festival of “Saturnalia” – a Roman holiday that celebrated the quest for knowledge along with the winter solstice and spanned roughly from December 17–23. Many believe that early Roman Catholic Church councils simply proclaimed that December 25 was the day Christ was born in order to retain their beloved holiday. Yet, the close proximity of the holidays is not the only reason that the two holidays are seemingly related – There are many overlapping traditions as well. A Pacific Standard article on the pagan roots of Christianity sums it up quite succinctly:

“The invention of Christmas was a power play, a religious contrivance and political machination instituted to shrewdly shift the masses from paganism to Christianity while minimizing the resistance that might arise out of wrenching away a beloved time of year.”

According to a 2009 article on the ancient holiday in History Today, “Saturnalia was a public holiday celebrated around December 25th in the family home. A time for feasting, goodwill, generosity to the poor, the exchange of gifts and the decoration of trees”. This article also notes that Saturnalia was a time of the “inversion” of social roles: “The wealthy were expected to pay the month’s rent for those who couldn’t afford it, masters and slaves to swap clothes”. For this short period of time, the strictly hierarchical organization of Rome seemed to disintegrate. The nobles were expected to take up a role of subservience while their slaves took up the role of the master. The wealthy were expected to throw their wealth about the city, so that all would be able to partake in the festivities.

In his poem on Saturnalia, the ancient poet Lucian has Cronos/Saturn explain the holiday to his priest:

“During my week the serious is barred; no business allowed. Drinking and being drunk, noise and games and dice, appointing of kings and feasting of slaves, singing naked, clapping of tremulous hands, an occasional ducking of corked faces in icy water,–such are the functions over which I preside”

As is noted by Cronos, the God of the festivities, above: this was a holiday that was not only known for its selfless generosity but for overwhelming self-indulgence as well. This was not only a time of social role “inversion” but the inversion of law and order in general. Over-indulgence in terms of consumption, drink, gambling and sexual engagement became the temporary norm. Business ceased and the entire city descended into a frenzied excess of self-indulgence as well as selfless expenditure on the impoverished. Saturnalia was much like an “Opposite Day” festival in many respects.

Besides the religious background that differentiates the contemporary holiday season from ancient Rome’s Saturnalia, there is also a further differentiation that should be addressed – the prevalence of the internal conflict that many experience in the former that was arguably not found in the latter.

Depictions of the celebration of Saturnalia; Photo Courtesy of: pagunview

Depictions of the celebration of Saturnalia;
Photo Courtesy of: pagunview

For many, there is an obvious contradiction between the drive for self-indulgence as well as the demand for selfless giving during the holiday season. Yet, for the ancient Romans, this was not the case. This may be simply because they had a different rationalization for their holiday and that the origin of these seemingly paradoxical traditions may only be properly understood in its pagan roots.

Saturnalia was a celebration of excess in all regards – an excess of self-indulgence as well as selflessness. It was a celebration of a lack of order and reason. To some extent, this ancient festival could be conceived as a celebration of the irrational and thus, any attempt at rationalization would be nonsensical.

The internal conflict one faces today is the result of grafting the Christian tradition onto the traditions of an ancient pagan festival. It may simply be that this double excessiveness of the holiday season (in terms of self-indulgence and selflessness) cannot be so easily rationalized through the Christian or secular lens of the modern world.

Robert Smith 

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