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Io, Saturnalia!

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There are few topics where I find myself agreeing with fundamentalist Christians, but their position on the over-commercialization of their second-most important commemoration day is one of them. There remain to this day certain Christian sects completely opposed to celebrating Christmas at all, probably in part due to the loss of religiosity. They like to declare that “Jesus is the Reason for the Season,” and I agree completely. But that religious commemoration—once done via distributing little gifts to family and friends—has since become corrupted beyond measure.

Every year there are outrages committed by shoppers who completely ignore the religious sentiments intended. This year was no exception, with a woman pepper spraying something like 20 other shoppers to ensure she got one of the come-on discounted video game consoles, and other shoppers ignoring a dying man because there were bargains to be had. Where Would Jesus Shop?

But I don’t believe that people will easily change their ways of celebrating conspicuous materialism while hiding behind religion that most don’t practice just because I ask for it. The only honest thing to do is to stop calling this secular sales orgy Christmas and return to celebrating the pagan holiday Christmas was intended to supplant: Saturnalia.

Shawn Landis: “The Saturnalia was a Roman holiday that took place in December that celebrated Saturn as a harvest god.” Holiday shopping is certainly seen as reaping a harvest by modern retailers! Allan M. Heller: “The early Christians absorbed certain pagan practices into observances of Christmas.” Pretty much the same strategy I propose, but in reverse: If you can’t suppress it, co-opt it! Natasha Sheldon: “Held close to the winter solstice, many of its elements survive in modern Christmas celebrations.”

Michael Streich supports Sheldon’s contentions, briefly enumerating many of these elements of pagan celebration retained by modern Christmas traditions: The decorated Christmas tree, the Yule log, Christmas caroling, the exchange of presents, and even mistletoe.

Seneca the Younger observed the scene in his day in his Epistle XVIII, one which doesn’t sound very dissimilar to our “modern” commercial revels:

It is the month of December, and yet the city is at this very moment in a sweat. License is given to the general merrymaking. Everything resounds with mighty preparations—as if the Saturnalia differed at all from the usual business day! So true it is that the difference is nil, that I regard as correct the remark of the man who said: “Once December was a month; now it is a year.”

He must have also gotten bombarded with throw-away sales mailers long before the arrival of the actual holiday!

Retailers are happy that the sales were so good on this most recent Black Friday, the date so named because it’s when many companies realize their annual profits. Apple and Amazon did well. But just because sales were good on one day isn’t proof that the remainder of the sales period will be as lucrative. The Atlantic reminds us that the 2008 Black Friday—the previous largest day of sales—was followed by a collapse of purchasing as people had clearly spent all they had early. Retailers now sweat out the rest of the current sales period, hoping that the spending spigots aren’t being closed by tapped-out consumers as in 2008 while there remains unsold merchandise on the shelves.

I’m not the only lonely voice crying out in the wilderness against the secularization of a religious holiday, unheeded by merchandising holiday revelers. Detroit Free Press Associate Editor Ron Dzwonkowski expresses his frustration over how the annual sales frenzy has eclipsed Thanksgiving: “…this is ruining the Thanksgiving holiday as traditional family gatherings give way to the pursuit of a different kind of family values—the retail variety.”

Like me, Dzwonkowski wants the unachievable, a change in the behavior of holiday celebrants. He would force this change through a shift in the day the holiday takes place. He would like to see Thanksgiving shifted to Tuesday, with Wednesday a mandatory work day to force a rift between being off work—and using that time to spend money—instead of spending quality time with family. “Seriously, can’t we set aside even one day to give thanks for friends, family and the United States of America?” he protests in his J’accuse. “For more and more people, this holiday seems to be about being thankful for bargains—and doing whatever it takes to make sure we get our share of them.”

Io, Saturnalia, Ron, My Brother in Holiday Disgruntlement! It’s the best I can do to support your position right now, except maybe to let wise Seneca have the last word:

“We shall be rich with all the more comfort, if we once learn how far poverty is from being a burden…to have reduced one’s needs to that modicum which no unfairness of Fortune can snatch away.”

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