A Hell of a Time

It’s customary to offer upbeat fare this time of year, since Christmas is often described as a festive season, but it is also hardly controversial to point out that Christmas as practiced in advanced economies has become a holiday of gift giving rather than having much to do with Christian ritual and beliefs. In some respects, Christmas has come to resemble the Romans’ December festival, Saturnalia. From Wikipedia:

Saturnalia was an ancient Roman festival in honor of the deity Saturn, held on the 17th of December of the Julian calendar and later expanded with festivities through to the 23rd of December. The holiday was celebrated with a sacrifice at the Temple of Saturn, in the Roman Forum, and a public banquet, followed by private gift-giving, continual partying, and a carnival atmosphere that overturned Roman social norms: gambling was permitted, and masters provided table service for their slaves. The poet Catullus called it “the best of days.”

In Roman mythology, Saturn was an agricultural deity who was said to have reigned over the world in the Golden Age, when humans enjoyed the spontaneous bounty of the earth without labor in a state of social egalitarianism. The revelries of Saturnalia were supposed to reflect the conditions of the lost mythical age, not all of them desirable. The Greek equivalent was the Kronia.

The idea that master would serve their slaves is a striking contrast with what happens in our society, and seems more in keeping with Matthew 20:31, “The first shall be last, and the last , first<' than what we see at this time of year in America. Social stratification is maintained. The well-off give bigger Christmas tips to various people who serve them, like yard men and hairdressers, and make year-end donations to charities, which may include ones that feed or otherwise help the poor or disadvantaged. I received this note yesterday:

My name is Steve Carlson and I’m a union and community organizer from northern Wisconsin. I recently made a music video of a song I wrote and recorded many years ago titled A Hell of A Time.

It’s a Christmas song, or perhaps an anti-Christmas song, or perhaps even more accurately a truly pro-Christmas song. I’ll let you folks decide. I wrote it because it seems to me that if Americans spent as much time, energy and money making a better world as we do celebrating Christmas we’d actually have that better world and something to truly celebrate.

I lived in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, which economically and culturally is a lot like northern Wisconsin: small towns that have been hit by the de-industrialization of America. They may have been forgotten by policymakers in Washington and too unglamorous to merit much attention from the mainstream media. Nevertheless, I believe that the people who read this blog are acutely aware of who has wound up being ground up by the march of neoliberalism, and want more socially just outcomes, even it we don’t necessarily agree on the course of action. And while some may chafe at the idea of a less than cheery Christmas song, it might be time to pull off the commercial veneer and see where we really are as a people. It’s only when you know where you are that you can map a path to get where you’d like to go.

Plus this actually is a very good song.

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  1. skippy

    Thank you Steve Carlson and you too Lamb]ert…

    Skippy… nice to know some burn the candle whatever may come… to those… myself… holds in the highest regard

  2. ambrit

    Good song. Except for the snow, it could be here Down South.
    We just had a vigil for the homeless that died in our town this year. Eleven people. Town population, 42,000. Look up food, clothing assistance in our town under hud.gov and every listing is for a “faith based” enterprise. The tent city just moved to a new spot after the old one was rousted. A spot less visible.
    Let’s break out the Ouija board and ask those eleven homeless spirits what they think of privatized ‘public’ services.
    It’s a good thing that the original Christmas was based on Hope. Hope is something that can’t be printed, bought or sold.

    1. Ivy

      Faith-based giving and community involvement are part of the glue that binds people together.

      We were given some advance notice about the accelerating privatization of charity and similar works (meaning less QUANGO, etc) during the reign of Bush the Elder. His oft-repeated 1000 points of light trope had two meanings: first the joyful caroling groups banding together to help, and then 1000 laser sights trained on people to let them know that they were targeted and should fall in line. That was his folksy way of introducing the forced offloading and distancing by those on his team. I won’t miss him, Babs, or any of their spawn.

  3. James

    Should be run on TV as a Public Service Announcement throughout the holidays. No, check that, it would just be co-opted and commercialized. Great song nonetheless!

  4. RUKidding

    Thanks. Very nice song. Reflects how many feel these days. The disposable people who don’t matter. Have yourself a hell of a time.

  5. DJG

    In a way, we should be so lucky if Christmas were to turn into Saturnalia, because the Romans took religion seriously. (No one would make offhanded remarks about being spiritual and not religious, whatever that may mean.) And there were gods everywhere, little gods with all kinds of funny names, who controlled every process and every change. Like the Japanese, the Romans saw the world as full of little gods. With the transcendence of the god of monotheism has come a strange lack of ethics and responsibility–we degrade the Earth, we decamp ethically. Thanks for the song. Happy New Year. Merry Saturnalia: give gifts to the kids.

  6. susan the other

    Interesting stuff about Saturnalia. The Pagans were more moral than we are. Thanks for the song. I think if I hear one more christmas carol I’m going to barf.

  7. Brooklin Bridge

    This is a sad sad song. It evokes a deeply troubling world with gentle irony in a lovely melody (which highlights the bleakness). Thanks Yves and Lambert for your light (incredible effort) in these times.

  8. Blackjack

    I kinda collect Christmas music, so each year I’m on the lookout for something to add to my collection. What a moving song. What a great addition. (BTW it’s available on ITunes – song or album.)
    Thank you Yves for all your efforts – your blog is a beam of light and sanity. I really do believe that we can ‘get better’. NC helps.

    Merry Christmas to all, and please don’t go the movies on Christmas day, it just ain’t right…

  9. not_me

    This life isn’t meant to be a pleasure cruise but a test. That said, mercy is highly recommended (else we can expect none ourselves) but JUSTICE IS REQUIRED and, per the Bible, justice is neither fascist (as our current money system is) nor socialist as many wish it to be.

  10. Sluggeaux

    Thank you for sharing this hauntingly poignant song and video. Steve Carlson has a beautiful voice, and his lyric cuts right to the core of our culture’s insufferable narcissism — because freedom!

    As George Monbiot wrote: “It is a pitiless, one-sided, mechanical view of the world, which elevates the rights of property over everything else, meaning that those who possess the most property end up with great power over others. Dressed up as freedom, it is a formula for oppression and bondage. It does nothing to address inequality, hardship or social exclusion. A transparently self-serving vision, it seeks to justify the greedy and selfish behaviour of those with wealth and power.”

    Have your SELF a merry little Christmas; Have your SELF a hell of a time…

  11. participant-observer-observed

    Merry Christmas, Yves & NC!

    In Asian societies and cultures like Buddhism & dharma traditions, gifts are instruments of communicative actions of appreciation, petition, connection, etc., and have much less significant value in and of themselves.

    Although it is preaching to the choir here on NC, if people practiced broad spectrum mindfulness regarding what their Christmas and all mundane everyday purchasing and gifting communicated throughout the entire economic etiological vectors, indeed, like the talented but poignant artist suggests, we could easily overcome many of our difficulties related to economic injustice, corruption, loss of representative democracy, etc.

    That our society refuses to do this is symptomatic of the co-dependent relationship between the compulsive ad relentless consumption drives of the extremely wealthy & the micro-greed of the poor and middle classes for infotainment, cheap ipads, etc., as pseudo-restful “nourishment.” As long as we can keep feeding the monkeys on the backs of each others’ desires, the cycle of mindfulness-less desire>consumption>ignorance>>suffering spirals around.

    The end to the spiral of addiction to consumption doesn’t have to entail an end to purchases, but rather the rationale and purpose for it is changed. Simpler living with more quality vs quantity purchasing could work wonders!

  12. Plucketeer

    Great song and video, Steve. Thanks for adding it to our world. This SHOULD BE an annual tune like Jingle Bells or Silent Night. It actually MEANS more than those and others.

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