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.