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Christmas and Saturnalia
Written in 2004, seems even more fitting to talk about today.
Last week I was invited to a “Saturnalia.” I had to look it up. Webster says “saturnalia” is a synonym for “orgy,” which seems wildly optimistic for any soiree at which an overweight, middle-aged bald guy like me would be welcome. Either my invite was a careless mistake or I was really invited to a Christmas party whose host was indulging the modern trend to take the Christ out of Christmas.
Religiously I am impossible to offend. When you invite me to soak up your rum and slurp down your canapés, you can call the event whatever you please.
That isn’t true for the hypersensitive forces of godlessness, however.
Unlike the Romans, modern pagans don’t have hungry lions to work with. Instead they wield the sword of hurt feelings and launch battalions of earnest, sensitive ACLU lawyers to destroy small town crèches and end the scourge of public caroling.
In fairness to modern pantheists, they are right about the origins of Christmas. Christians just barged in and took over. Long before there were Christians, Mediterranean polytheists marked the end of the year with a weeklong party in memory of an ancient Golden Age ruled over by Saturn, the god of planting, husbandry and thrift. Not a god who would have much of a following today.
The mythical Golden Age was a time of abundance and peace. Slavery and cruelty were unknown. Private property did not exist. The land and all it produced were shared in common. A productive, contented people lived in blissful innocence, unsoiled by ambition, greed or love of money.
Foreshadowing the fate of modern communist utopias, the reign of the good god and kindly monarch vanished. But his memory remained. Shrines in his honor studded the high places of ancient Italy like busts of Marx and Lenin in the sociology departments of Ivy League universities.
By the time Jesus came on the scene, the most barbaric feature of the Saturnalia, human sacrifice, had vanished from polite society. But even though the king of the feast was no longer sacrificed, contemporaries reported a weeklong revel that would induce apoplectic seizure in a Puritan.
The Roman celebration featured a mock king called the Lord of Misrule, gift giving, and role reversal for slaves and masters. For a week slaves had the run of the villa. They ate, drank and bossed their masters around as if they had become the masters themselves. Perhaps a new pagan triumph would get us a week off from airport strip searches and bureaucratic ring kissing.
In the first few hundred years after Christ’s death his followers spread like a wet blanket over the debauched glory of pagan Rome. The Roman authorities resisted conversion by publicly murdering Christians in imaginative and gruesome ways. But Christ’s message enthralled mankind like no message had before.
In the marketplace of ideas Christianity had more to offer than paganism. Where heathen nostalgia looked wistfully back to a communist utopia, the ironies of Christianity looked forward to a kingdom of light and everlasting life. Christianity was freighted with promise of redemption and peace. And of course, you can’t beat rising from the dead to make a lasting impression.
Christian paradox replaced heathen simplicity. For Christians, grace and glory came not from great works that appeased angry gods but from good deeds and humility. Christians told us that to get, we must give. To live forever, we must die. To triumph we must love our enemies.
Paradox often inspires confusion and mistrust. It’s no wonder that pagans, who trust no higher authority than that of emperors, senators or presidents, don’t trust Christians or the ironic message of their God.
After 400 years of abuse from Roman politicians, Christians were able to start bossing pagans around. In 391 Theodosius I, the last emperor of a united Roman Empire and a Christian, made Christianity the official state religion. He turned the Saturnalia into Christmas. He outlawed pagan holidays that he hadn’t preempted for Christ. Like a one-man anti-pagan ACLU he disbanded the Vestal Virgins.
From then on Christians were in charge, usually showing they were no better than the pagans who had tormented them. Christians were as susceptible to corruption, folly and the madness of crowds as any pack of heathens. They followed lunatics like Peter the Hermit to the Crusades, tortured heretics under Torquemanda, fought a Hundred Years War, burned witches, and much more, all with the murderous verve of Nero or Diocletian.
But because Christians have often failed to live perfect Christian lives doesn’t diminish the power of Christ’s message or extinguish the hope of mercy and redemption that He offered. That Christmas is just a pagan solstice ritual painted up in red and green doesn’t make a message of universal peace less worth celebrating. At Christmas we celebrate our striving to transcend weakness, fear and fallibility not our success at having done so. If a few fanatical nonbelievers take offense at such a celebration, it seems a small price to pay.
In the spirit of the season ― at the risk of offending sensitive non-Christians who have read this far ― I will recall for you the famous line from the Nativity story in the Gospel of Luke. It summarizes the bright promise of Christianity and shines over Christmas with the simple eloquence of the star above the stable:
“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”
I wish you, one and all, a Merry Christmas and a return to sanity in 2022.