How About A Saturnalia Display?

[ Posted Wednesday, December 18th, 2013 – 17:58 UTC ]

'Tis the season.

What season? Well, that depends upon your belief system, doesn't it?

For Christians, it is the season of Advent, the season of Noël; in short, the season of Christmas. For Jews, the season of Hanukkah. For Muslims, the season of Eid.

For others, joining in the mirth has now come to mean celebrating the season of Festivus, a made-up holiday from a made-up television show. And even the Flying Spaghetti Monster adherents are getting in on the fun this year.

Historically, America has treated Christmas as the sole holiday worthy of governmental approval. In the federal schedule of holidays, there is one and only one religious holiday, after all -- Christmas Day. The mail doesn't move, the courts are closed, and all non-emergency government services are shuttered. Sooner or later, someone's going to get around to suing to change this, but nobody's been that bold in the courts yet. If America is a secular nation, after all (it says so, right here on the label...) then why -- in any god's name -- should it recognize one religion over another in such a fashion? But since this hasn't happened yet, we only mention it in passing as a thought exercise for civil rights lawyers to contemplate. On their day off, perhaps.

No doubt, if such a lawsuit ever advanced, it would provide proof positive, for some, that a "War On Christmas" does in fact exist. What is laughable about this is that the real war on Christmas celebrations was waged by some of the first colonists. Puritans in New England rejected virtually all of what we now know as Christmas celebrations, and at times they did so with the force of law behind them. Government offices and courts were open on Christmas Day, and all holiday revelry was either severely frowned upon or banned outright. This is the real history of some of the earliest Christmases in America, and nothing these days even comes close. Part of the fight was due to the Protestant/Catholic schism. Christmas was largely considered a Catholic holiday (it is, after all, a shortening of "Christ's Mass"), and the celebrations of the holiday were a bone of contention in England (where the Puritans came from). Even by the time of the American Revolution, Christmas wasn't largely celebrated here, especially in New England.

As time went by, however, the popularity of Christmas grew. It is, after all, a fun holiday with plenty of fine traditions reaching back into the mists of Christianity. Well, um, no. This is part of what upset the Puritans, in fact -- most Christmas traditions were stolen directly from the pagans. The Christmas tree, the Yule log, wreaths, candles, the very date itself (which used to fall on the Winter Solstice, long before the Gregorian calendar was adopted), gift-giving, holiday cards in verse, wassailing (or just plain getting drunk with holiday cheer), holly, mistletoe, kissing under the mistletoe, the "twelve days" of Christmas, eating a feast, even hooking up at the office party -- pretty much none of these had anything to do with Christians. All were pagan winter holiday rituals without a shred of connection to the baby Jesus whatsoever, before the Church decided to file off the serial numbers and declare such traditions as their own. Ironically enough, the biggest Christmas tradition that today's traditionalist religious leaders tend to decry -- Santa Claus -- is one of the few which arose directly from Christianity itself (there really was a Saint Nicholas, although all the "magic elf who gives naughty and nice children presents" trappings were added later).

But not many delve into this history, preferring instead to bask in hazy "historic" memories of what Christmas is and how we should celebrate it. And, somewhere along the way, this became an excuse for demanding that Christmas is the only holiday acknowledged during the holiday season. Not only were all the older, pagan traditions defended (as being "Christian" celebrations), but no other holidays were to be honored at all.

As always in America, this is all fine and good when we're talking about private homes and businesses and houses of worship. Nobody's suggesting that a Christian church be somehow forced to put up any other religious display than a manger scene, after all. But the battle is truly joined in the public square. Municipal decorations on city streets (often paid for by downtown merchants) are one thing, but when we are talking about religious displays in a public park or at a governmental building, that is quite another, constitutionally.

Which is how we end where we began. There are only two valid choices for a secular government agency to make, constitutionally, when it comes to allowing religious displays on its property: allow everyone in, or allow nobody to erect such displays. What the Constitution forbids is playing favorites -- allowing one religion to set up a display, but not any other. Even though, historically, this did indeed happen for a long time in America, up through the twentieth century. But "that's the way we always did it" just isn't good enough, anymore. This has led, mostly, to a menorah being set up alongside the Christmas tree in public parks across America. "There, we included Jews, good enough, right?" you can almost hear the government agencies say to themselves with relief.

Unfortunately for them, there is also a long tradition in America of rampant silliness. And rampant silliness seems to be busting out all over. Which is fine with me, really, since I enjoy a good dose of rampant silliness as much as the next guy.

So I do applaud the Flying Spaghetti Monster displays. This mock religion was created, in fact, to mock religion. Why shouldn't they have an equal soapbox to do so, at the one time of year when religions are allowed such prominent public displays? I also applaud fans of Seinfeld who deal with their city or state's red tape and get the proper permit to erect a Festivus pole in their courthouse or statehouse. Even if it is made out of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer cans.

In fact, I would go further than even the PBR cans. Because, knowingly or not, such a holiday display actually celebrates one of the longest midwinter traditions humankind has ever enjoyed -- getting drunk as a skunk. I would suggest that future silliness purveyors dig further back in time and come up with an even better holiday display -- one that honors the god Saturn.

The holiday season of Saturnalia was celebrated in late December for centuries. It involved a sacrifice at the Temple of Saturn, feasting, gift-giving, candles, and of course, heavy drinking and lots of revelry and gambling. Borrowing from other pagan ceremonies across Europe at the time, this also occasionally involved "world turned upside down" situations, where masters would eat with (or even serve) their slaves. Fake "kings" would sometimes be crowned, who could order anyone to do anything (and their imagination knew few bounds as to what that "anything" could be). These false rulers, sadly, were often the human sacrifices at the end of the celebration, though.

OK, sure, Saturnalia had a dark side, but it also seems to have been the origin (or at least the historical conduit) for a lot of the rituals Christians practice today -- which seem to be even older historically than a lot of other Christmas/pagan traditions. Which deserves recognition, alongside all the other seasonal displays. Some enterprising group looking for something slightly less silly than a Festivus pole could come up with a display honoring Saturnalia (here's a fine sculpture on the subject, to get the ideas rolling) to proudly erect in a statehouse somewhere.

Modern Saturnalia revelers would have to, of course, jettison the whole "human sacrifice" thing, in order to gain any sort of wide acceptance. That goes without saying, almost. Minus the darker aspects, though, it'd be just another way for non-Christians to "steal back" all the holiday traditions originally swiped from pagans. After all, who isn't for a bit of gift-giving, candles, feasts and drinking at this time of year? Rather than putting the "Christ" back into "Christmas" (as so many religious leaders beg for, in vain, every year), why not just take the "Christ" completely out of Saturnalia? That way everyone can join in. Take the beer can Festivus pole display to its logical and historical conclusion!

Happy holidays, everyone. No matter what you happen to be celebrating....

-- Chris Weigant


Cross-posted at The Huffington Post

Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


6 Comments on “How About A Saturnalia Display?”

  1. [1] 
    Michale wrote:

    Let me preface this comment by saying that my attitudes towards religion are well known and the following is not ANY endorsement of religion.

    Having said that, I wouldn't say that the United States is a "secular" nation.

    It's a country that was founded on Christian values and the influence of religion is weaved into the fabric of this nation. Much to my chagrin..

    It's a country founded on the notion that government can't cannot endorse any religion over any other religion. Further, the government cannot, ALL THINGS BEING EQUAL, refuse "equal time" (so to speak) to other religions.

    The "All Things Being Equal" is the important part of that last...


  2. [2] 
    LewDan wrote:

    Actually, Chris, the constitution prohibits government establishing any religion. SCOTUS is the one who, in yet another unconstitutional constitutional amendment, decided government must allow "all or none." The two are not the same. The constitutional intent was to protect the right to worship by forbidding the use of government to impose ones religious beliefs and practices on others. Ask gays, lesbians, and abortion providers about how well that's worked out under the SCOTUS "interpretation!" Just as mandating equivalent atheist displays and mocking anti-religious displays are fully in keeping with SCOTUS' rulings and completely counter to the intent of the constitution. Using government to belittle, harass, and, hopefully, inhibit religious practices is exactly what the constitution sought to outlaw, trying to impose ones religious practices, or lack of them, on others with different beliefs.

    Also, midwinter festivals have been universal throughout history and were merely coopted by Christians. "Christmas" celebrations have little, or nothing, to do with Christianity. Just because Christianity seeks to claim a festival and has been successful in getting it "rebranded" with their trademark doesn't mean its all about them! Christ wasn't born anywhere near Christmas day and Kris Kringle has never had anything to do with the practice of Christianity. The "commercialization" of Christmas is actually truer to its foundations than supposed Christian religious practices. Perhaps that's why its so much more pervasive, and Christmas never really about Christianity. Though Christians have been trying for centuries to make it so. Our country's greatest failing is that its never practiced the rule of law. It cloaks its arbitrary abuses in legal seeming rationalizations thanks to the democratic process and its abject indifference of the majority to anything viewed as not directly and immediately affecting them.

  3. [3] 
    Michale wrote:

    It cloaks its arbitrary abuses in legal seeming rationalizations thanks to the democratic process and its abject indifference of the majority to anything viewed as not directly and immediately affecting them.

    As opposed to those who go out of their way to be professionally offended by anything and everything, regardless of whether or not they have a dog in the hunt.. :D


  4. [4] 
    YoYoTheAssyrian wrote:

    Check it all, including you Michale, I think you'll find the actual American of tradition of Christmas quite fascinating. As with most things our perceptions of Christmas have more to say about ourselves than anything else.

  5. [5] 
    Michale wrote:

    Check it all, including you Michale, I think you'll find the actual American of tradition of Christmas quite fascinating. As with most things our perceptions of Christmas have more to say about ourselves than anything else.

    I am not big on holiday traditions...

    Personally, I would be happy to go from 15 Oct to 16 Jan and just skip the whole thing...

    With, of course, carving out an exemption for the Annual Weigantia Fund Raiser...

    Having said all that, just let me say this..

    That Santa looks REALLY creepy.. If I were to find him in my house, I think he would be on the business end of my Remington Riot Control Shotgun.. :D

    As with most things our perceptions of Christmas have more to say about ourselves than anything else.

    Truer words were never spoken...


  6. [6] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    LewDan -

    Depends, of course, on the definition of "establishing" a religion. I'm fairly absolutist in this regard, as I consider it unconstitutional for the IRS to determine who "is" and who "is not" a a valid "religion." That, to me, is establishment, right there.

    Although I have to admit, you seem to be caught in an oxymoron, with "yet another unconstitutional constitutional amendment." ANY amendment, when ratified, is part of the Constitution. Whether it is idiotic or not (see: Prohibition), it is, by definition, constitutional, being part of the founding document after ratification. But perhaps I'm splitting hairs....

    When the Constitution itself was ratified, only a few states would have subscribed to the modern view of separation of church and state -- perhaps Rhode Island and maybe Pennsylvania? In most states, atheist displays would have been (legally) shunned.

    As for midwinter festivals, here's an article from 2007 for you:



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