Thursday, December 13, 2012

Nothing To Be Saturnine About

It’s that time of year again when folks celebrate whatchamacallit. Much of the worry over nomenclature seems silly to me. Call December Twenty-something Christmas with the Christians, Soyal with the Zuni, or Yule with the Wiccans. Fine by me. Though I’m about as secular-minded a fellow as you’re likely to find, I personally don’t care whether displays in public parks have religious themes, or, if so, which ones. (In an American legal context, there is a constitutional issue regarding the use of tax money for the purpose, but the public purse is not the sole source of cash.) I don’t care whether a tree is called a Christmas tree or a holiday tree or just an evergreen. 

This time of year always has been a festive season on account of the winter solstice (in the Northern hemisphere, of course). Since prehistory it has been as good a reason to festivate as any. The solstice was December 25 in the Julian calendar as adopted by Julius Caesar in 46 BC. The 25th also was the Roman sun cult holiday Dies Natalis Solis Invicti (day of the birth of the unconquerable sun). The Nicean Council settled on December 25 for Christmas in 325 AD. On the slightly inaccurate Julian calendar, the solstice drifted 14 days between 46 BC and 1582 AD. When the Gregorian calendar was adopted in 1582, it didn’t cut two weeks from that year in order to reset the calendar to 46 BC. It reset to 325 AD so that the solstice fell on December 21. Whether one reason was to separate Christmas a little from the solstice is anyone’s guess. (The Gregorian calendar tweaks the Julian by eliminating the leap day from any century year not evenly divisible by 400, so that 2000 was a leap year but 2100 won’t be; this makes the calendar accurate to within one day per 3300 years.)

The Puritans waged the first war on Christmas in North America; they banned the holiday because it had pagan origins. They were right… and wrong. Many of the holiday traditions do have pagan precursors, such as the gift-giving and the Yule log. The Christmas tree could be argued either way. Pagan Germano-Celts used evergreen wreaths at the solstice and they were seriously into their sacred groves, but if they decorated indoor evergreen trees they didn't record the practice anywhere. The trees are first mentioned in print in the 16th century in Germany and the Baltic. One can't help suspecting, though, that the real gripe the Puritans had was that someone might have fun.

The most commonly noted precursor to Christmas is the Roman Saturnalia, which involved an exchange of presents and lasted from December 17 to December 23 on the Julian calendar in a run-up to the solstice. You’ve got to give the Romans credit for knowing how to party. The satirist Lucian (c. 150 AD) describes some of the other activities. He puts this dialogue in the mouth of Cronos (aka Saturn) in whose honor the festival is held:

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.”

I expect the usual motley assortment of guests at my house on the 25th (pretty much the same crew as Thanksgiving, plus a few). I don’t think they’ll hold back on anything on Lucian’s list except maybe the naked singing. But you never know.

Eartha Kitt Santa Baby (1953)

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