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 …
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 Judæan 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 Judæa in AD 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 12 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 12, 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.