Daily Archives: December 23, 2011


Ah, the eternal season, as a turning of the year comes around: work pauses, and we enter a liminal week, where we cast off our quotidian fetters and eat, drink, give gifts, and be merry. True, it is for some a time of saturnine alienation, but for the most part we party like Australians. And it all climaxes… today.

No, I don’t mean Festivus, something that was designed to replace Christmas. I mean something Christmas was designed to replace – or, really, co-opt: Saturnalia. That annual Roman period of social inversion, gluttony, drunkenness, debauchery, et cetera, a sort of turn for the satyric, which was at first a single day on December 17 and then extended over a week, to end on December 23. The slogan in the air was not “Merry Christmas” but “Io Saturnalia” (I’m sure you’d say “io!” if you had a satyr nail ya). It was truly a liminal time, an inversion; all people, masters and slaves and freed slaves, were treated as equals… Well, everyone knew who was really who, but it created a freedom that was a pressure release valve for a grossly unequal society.

Saturnalia was so popular, Christianity (which has in many times and places historically been nearly as much of an amoeba as the English language, assimilating existing practices barely altered) simply planted its flag on it: “We will celebrate the birth of Jesus on December 25.”

I won’t say planted its tree… Christmas trees, like Easter eggs, are also pagan borrowings. Actually, in terms of core Christian teaching, Christmas is at best peripheral. But that doesn’t keep it from being overridingly popular – the biggest Christian celebration by far – and held up as a great emblem of the faith. I’m put in mind of how white wedding dresses are seen as a great timeless tradition, though they were an innovation under Queen Victoria, and for that matter how a variety of comparatively recent innovations are held up by some people as essential points of English grammar. In general, “inviolable timeless tradition” means “I remember it from my childhood.”

But don’t take this as a criticism of our modern Saturnalia, which I enjoy as much as many others do. It has some lovely music, and some lovely traditions, and much quite charming paraphernalia, and for many people really does have a genuine spiritual focus (and after all, Christianity didn’t keep everything from the older festival, and it did add some details of its own), even if it is also an appalling time of hyperconsumerism for which businesses are so desperate that they start pushing it up to two months in advance, just so people can max their credit cards and spend much of the next year poor from paying it off, plunging the stores into the same desperation again. Aside from all that, revelry is loverly. It would seemsoddly mixed-up to be as a rule anti-Saturnaliae.

But what, exactly, is Saturnalia, aside from an anagram of Australian and (with the pluralizing e) of as a rule anti? Its tastes of sat and turn and alien and alias and its rhymes with paraphernalia, genitalia, and perhaps Alitalia don’t really point you in the right direction. Nor does saturnine – obviously a related word, but it refers to a gloomy, quiet, sluggish temperament. That’s rather opposite to the seasonal revelries.

Well, there’s more than one Saturn. There’s Saturn the planet, which was once thought to be the most distant, and coldest, planet, and people born under its influence were considered to have cold, distant dispositions, hence saturnine. It’s actually a glorious planet – with its archetypal rings and moons, planetary paraphernalia one almost wants to call Saturnalia – and it’s huge, bigger than Christmas or Santa’s belly, even; see blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/2011/12/19/the-scale-of-saturn.

And then there’s Saturn the god, who presided over agriculture and the harvest; he’s typically seen holding a sickle and wheat. He was actually a sort of Greek refugee – he started as Kronos, son of Uranus, and one of the Titans; he was also the father of Zeus, and was overthrown by Zeus. So he decamped to Rome and was mainly a good-times guy after that. OK, that’s a gross simplification, but the mythology is so rhizomatic, anfractuous, and inconsistent, I’d much rather just have another eggnog and move on. And, wandering back to the planet, the nomenclature of the solar system has resulted in Saturn’s father Uranus becoming the next planet beyond Saturn (and not nearly as big as Saturn) and Titan being the name of Saturn’s biggest moon. (Also among its moons: Europa and Io – Io Saturnalia! But it’s not Io how a rose e’er blooming; it’s Io’s volcanos e’er erupting.)

And then there’s Saturn the cars, and Saturn the moon rockets, and so on. And of course there’s Saturn’s day, Saturday, which is a kind of weekly mini-Saturnalia for many of us. The very sound of /sæ tr/ may provoke a sense of relaxation and fun – and shopping. And then the week turns again, or in the year the Yuletide turns again, inter alia. But before Chronos there comes Kronos (don’t confuse the two); before you pay again, you play the pagan. So happy Saturnalia, mutatis mutandis.