Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Christmas/Saturnalia

I love Christmas time.  No, I'm not a Christian.  I don't even pretend to be.  But I love Christmas because it is an amazing collage of bastardised religious rites and superstitions from all over Europe (and possibly further) which have been rebranded for the modern world.
Like the red shoes the current pope has decided not to wear were a leave over from the Roman Pontifex Maximus, so Christmas is a motley crew of Roman, Celtic, and possibly other cultures of which I am unaware, are the final remnant clinging to existence in this new world.  It is a mid-winter (or in my geographical case, mid-summer) festival which arrives a few days late and provides my family an excuse to take time off and torture each other with gifts which include cryptic clues written for no other reason than to torment the recipients.  My family had an unreasonable number of December birthdays, so instead of trying to accommodate both sets of gift giving we abandoned birthday presents (when the lone March birthday boy received the best gifts) and focused on Christmas gifts instead.  
Yet despite none in my immediate family being overtly Christian, we happily enter the Christmas spirit safe in the knowledge that ancient Romans would have no issue with our non-devout participation.  A number of the rituals we associate with Christmas may well be a reflection of the Roman Saturnalia: remove the pom-poms from Santa hats, and you find yourself wearing a brightly dyed freedom cap worn by slaves during this period (they even appear to have been red), especially at a household meal during which masters served the slaves - a possible origin for your work Christmas party.  Like Santa hats, these were made of felt, and were often red.  And like our Christmas celebrations today, the Romans were big on gift giving. 

6th-century mosaic from Sant'Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna - featuring the three wise men.

While Martial wrote little poems about Saturnalia gifts, for example broad-brimmed hats (14.29) which could keep the sun off your face at games, or a literary warning label for the wooden candlestick (14.44), and even snow (14.118), and Macrobius wrote dialogue between a number of pagans spending the festival together during the late empire, my favourite Saturnalia work is without compromise Statius' Silvae 4.9, because unlike us, he was willing to whinge about a crappy Saturnalia gift, not merely to close associates, but in poetic meter and then published the gripe.  The fact that this stingy gift-giver is called "Grypus" adds to my amusement.  So not only did the Romans have huge parties, wear silly hats, reward their workers, and eat too much, but they also had rude mongrels who were willing to bitch about the quality of the gift they received.  I include a translation below by A. S. Kline for your entertainment, and to prove that while our festivals change, humanity remains the same.
Book 4.9 
 To be sure it’s a jest, Grypus, to send me
A little book in return for my little book!
Yet it could only be thought amusing
If you sent me a proper one to follow.
For if you persevere in joking, Grypus,
It’s no joke! Look, let’s consider both.
Mine is purple, on fresh parchment,
Adorned with a pair of knobs at the ends.
Beside my time, it cost me a denarius:
Yours, moth-eaten, putrid with mould,
Like the sheets that drain Libyan olives,
Or hold incense, or pepper from the Nile,
Or serve when cooking Byzantine tunny.
And they’re not even your own speeches,
Those you thundered as a youngster there,
In the triple Forum, or to the Hundred,
Before Caesar made you his controller
Of the supply train, general overseer
Of relay stations on every highroad;
No, you send me Brutus’ boring stuff,
Bought by you, for a Caligulan penny,
From some wretched bookseller’s bag.
Were there no caps for sale, stitched
Out of cloak trimmings, no towels, no
Yellowed napkins, writing paper, dates
From Thebes, or figs from Caria? No
Handful of plums or Syrian prunes
Gathered together in a crumbling cone?
No dry wicks, no peeled onion-skins?
Not even eggs, no oats, no rough meal?
No slimy shell of some creeping snail,
That has wandered the Libyan plains?
No lump of bacon or mouldy ham?
No Lucanian sausage, no little Faliscans,
No salt, no honeyed-dates, no cheese?
No bread made with washing soda,
Or raisin wine boiled with its lees,
Or muddied dregs of sweet wine?
Why not give me stinking candles,
knife, or some thin letter-paper?
Or how about a little jar of grapes,
Dishes turned on a Cuman wheel,
Or a set (what’s to be afraid of?)
Of white cups and white saucers?
But as though you were balancing
Scales, you give the same, tit for tat.
What! If I greet you in the morning
With my loud after-breakfast belch,
Must you do likewise in my house?
Or if you treat me to a sumptuous
Feast, must you expect the same?
Grypus, I’m angry with you, so
Farewell; only please don’t send
Me now, with your customary wit,
Your own hendecasyllables in reply!


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