The celebration of Christmas is a powerful religious and cultural tradition. It’s hard for me to imagine winter without it. But for thousands of years before, during and well after the birth of Christ, there was a different kind of celebration, a much rowdier affair.
As the Roman empire collapsed, Church authorities co-opted the Roman feast of Saturnalia (celebrated from Dec. 25-31) as the time to celebrate the birth of Christ; the actual date of Christ’s birth is a widely contested affair. The yearly celebration of Christ’s nativity in late December lined up well with the sun regaining its strength after winter solstice. The entire Christian calendar was laid down effectively on top of the agricultural year cycle: the Feast of St. John’s replaced the existing midsummer festival of giant bonfires (June 24); All Saints’ Day was substituted for Samhain, the pre-Celtic and Germanic new year (Halloween is what’s left of that old party); Advent symbolized the “Old Law” era of dying back into the earth, and Easter replaced the spring fertility rites (this is an incomplete list of holy days/festivals; there’s just too much information to include in one post).
So what was a Pagan midwinter festival like? It’s hard to know exactly, because virtually no written records from before the Roman conquest have survived. Once the bureaucratic Romans came through and documented everything, there was some record of Pagan and pre-Christian Roman winter celebrations, in what the Church condemned about them. From a fascinating history book I’ve had for eight or nine years—Medieval Folklore, Oxford University Press, 2002—I copied out some text:
“Within the Yuletide season of feasting, story-telling, and gambling, masquerades could take on a decidedly non-Christian character. Repeated early Church prohibitions, evidently unsuccessful, against animal masking (stags and bull masks particularly) at the New Year have been collected… Wild Men and other menacing grotesques were popular in later medieval Yuletide assemblies. The late-medieval development in German-speaking areas of a Ruprecht figure—a devilish figure dressed in black—as shadow to the gift-giving, child-oriented St. Nicholas epitomizes the dichotomies of the Season of Peace. The piquant ‘sport’ of King Arthur’s Christmas was, we might recall, the beheading game of a gigantic Green Knight.”
Unlike modernity, where the grand majority of people are disconnected from the agricultural year, in the ancient and medieval era people had long hours of free time in winter. They worked constantly during the planting and harvesting season, and the winters were for resting and celebrating. Families told stories, sang, drank a lot, and wore wild costumes at their winter feasts. The Twelve Days of Christmas were created from the Pagan “rituals of inversion,” where for the length of the yule-tide feast, people were free to chuck their given societal roles and try on new ones. Masters and slaves switched places (when carolers sing “Give us the figgy pudding,” they are voicing the slaves’ demands of their masters at yuletide); the Feast of the Ass saw the king or clan-leader sitting at the lowest spot at the table; even men and women could switch roles for two weeks. So it seems the yule-tide feasts offered complete release of expectation, space for theater and freedom, and an excuse to bring out the best wine.
Now, compare that to what we have: people work themselves to death, up to and sometimes on the holiday, showcasing exactly how deeply they’re entrenched in their societal roles. There’s very little freedom at Christmas, there’s not much creativity (I like some Christmas decorations, and I even like going to church on Christmas Eve; but it’s the tradition that’s comforting there, knowing it will be exactly like I remember from my childhood. Nothing will be new or surprising). I think the differences between Roman festivals in the year 1 and Christmas 2011 were created by our disconnect from the earth. If we all worked the land together, a bunch of smelly peasants, we’d all rest together, and in the darkest, most dragging days, we’d throw a giant party where we could escape from our identities. Instead, we all work separately at jobs that have nothing to do with the Earth’s rotation, and we live far apart; coming together at the year’s end involves traveling thousands of miles and seeing people we don’t see all that often. So instead of giving each other our time, all the time, we work to buy things for our families, tokens. This is far from anything Christ taught, either; I respect his teachings and I love his message of peace—but they have been divorced from the commercial free-for-all that’s supposedly in honor of his birth. Capitalism pollutes everything pure and good.
In lieu of a conclusion to all this, I will say that I wish we could somehow go back to the feast of Saturnalia. Not a permanent replacement of what we have now, but a trying-out of the old ways. Just once I’d like to put on a giant bull mask and jump through a bonfire.