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Clay Farris Naff Headshot

Keep Saturn in Saturnalia!

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I have to admit it. Like millions of other Americans, I've allowed the holidays to decay into a frenzy of shopping, feasting, gift-giving and wassail-soaked merriment. But all is going to change. I have seen the light.

Here's how it happened. Battered and weary, I came home with an armload of presents. As I set down my packages, I spotted a pamphlet that had been slipped under the door. These are the words that have changed my life:

"For centuries, we have kept quiet and let our holiday to be trampled by 'religious correctness.' But no more. We Romans had have enough! It's time to take a stand for Saturn!

"Long before there was this so-called 'Christmas' we reveled in the weeklong festival of Saturnalia. It was a time to celebrate the children and the downtrodden of society, as well as to have some darn good fun. And let me tell you, as the people who invented the vomitorium, we Romans know something about having fun. You think you Americans over-indulge at the holidays? Hah! Bet you never ate a whole roasted boar, sang in a naked choir or burned down a major public building to celebrate the season.

"Although Saturnalia came at the time of year when days were short and the nights were long, we found ways to enjoy ourselves around the sundial. Believe me, it was a riot!

"Then religion had poke its nose in. First, it was the sun worshipers. You'd think could have chosen a better time of year than the winter solstice to celebrate their 'Sol Invictus' -- the unconquered Sun -- but no, they had to go and soil our Saturnalia. And that was just the beginning.

"Next, we had Mithra shoved in our faces. Mithra! A Persian god, forsooth! I ask you, what self-respecting Saturnalianist wants to go about worshiping a god whose very name sounds like a lisp?

"Meantime, some of the Legionnaires who had drawn hardship duty up north, where the Huns and Norsemen roam, came back with yet another celebration to throw on the fire. They call it Yule, and it runs for 12 days, no less! Those Norsemen worship some very ordinary god -- Odin for short. Because up there it stays dark nearly the whole day long at this time of year, the Yule celebration involves decorating a an evergreen tree with candles and keeping a big log burning the whole time. To keep the Yule log burning, they would toss the occasional animal or unlucky prisoner onto the blaze. For extra kicks, they sometimes roasted chestnuts over the open fire. Big whoop. And wouldn't you know it, Yule happens to trample right over Saturnalia!

"As if that wasn't enough already, some hick agricultural god called Attis blundered his way from Asia Minor into our seasonal holidays. Lemme tell you, he was no fun. Born of a virgin mother on December XXV, he went around being a goodie-goodie until a friend betrayed him to the authorities, so he went and sacrificed himself in the most ungodly way under a pine tree.

"That should have been the end of that, but after three days, so they say, he was resurrected as a god. Big deal, I say. There are lots of gods to choose from, and me, I'm sticking with Saturn.

"Or at least that was what a lot of us said until Emperor Constantine got religion. One religion, in particular. They say that just before he won the Battle of Milvian Bridge, he saw a cross in the sky. I ask you, is that any reason for adopting a religion? A cross in the sky? I myself have seen dragons, not to mention sheep, dogs and ducks, in the clouds. They never last. If the Emperor had only waited a few minutes, it would have gone away and we could have all partied on.

"At least Constantine didn't shut down the other temples. All he did was to legalize Christianity and drop some heavy hints about which side of the religious toast was to be buttered from then on. But a few years later along comes Pope Julius I and changes everything. In so-called A.D. 350 he declares December XXV to be the birthday of Jesus, and that's that.

"So, from that day on, our holiday has gotten short shrift. But no more! Be on notice, world. We are putting Saturn back in Saturnalia!"

Well, as I say, that pamphlet has changed everything for me. I can't say I've become a Saturnalian. But I have come to appreciate the amazing diversity of traditions underlying Christmas, and more than ever I see it as a people's holiday, to be celebrated -- or not -- in whatever way each family sees fit. Provided, of course, the celebration doesn't involve human sacrifice or burning down any major public buildings. Merry Mithra ... er ... Happy Attis ... uh ... Joy of the Season to you all!

Around the Web

Saturnalia - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Saturnalia - Celebrate the Saturnalia

Books Probe Christmas's Religious Origins

Christmas History, Traditions and Folklore

Kenneth C. Davis: Christmas Myths: Why December 25th?