Tried, true and sorta tired traditions
| December 15, 2021 1:00 AM
When we hit this time of year, many of us have one thought on our minds: Boy, the end of the month can’t come soon enough.
You can put your pitchforks down; I’m not Scrooging on anyone’s holiday parade. In fact, the extra lights and festivities are much appreciated.
But the eight hours of sunlight? That’s much less appreciated.
The ancients clearly thought so, too, which is why so many celebrated the Sun’s “return” at the winter solstice, the “shortest” day of the year in terms of light hours, after which the days officially start to get longer again. One such celebration(now more widely known thanks to modern internet culture), was the celebration Saturnalia, which lent much to Christmas traditions which have continued throughout the centuries.
Although originally one day, the Romans eventually expanded the party to a weeklong fete, starting Dec. 17 and ending Dec. 25 (Roman weeks were a confusing eight days, with the first and last of each overlapping with the prior/next). So if you’re looking for any excuse to celebrate as much as possible, for as long as possible, consider this the permission you were looking for. Whether you want to mark the end of the sun’s vacation or treat every day this week like it’s basically Christmas Eve, go ahead. It’s a 2,000-plus year tradition.
Speaking of old habits, that lovely tree gracing your living room? Straight out of ancient Rome! Gaius and Julia probably didn’t have Hallmark keepsakes, but they did decorate their evergreens with treats and stars, and set them aglow with candles. But since there’s enough smoke in the air in wildfire season, let’s ditch candles on trees for good.
Dressing the home with branches, wreaths, and other wintry plants is ancient, too. The Romans would bring in bits of pine trees to cheer up the home – perhaps as an inspiring reminder of species which can survive frost, famine, and other trials of winter.
Although a modern understanding of germ theory has pretty much put an end to the practice of baking coins into bread, you can thank the Romans for that, too. Maybe baking a symbolic chocolate coin into your bread is a better way to cultivate prosperity?
Complaints of clichéd presents are even more tired than you may realize. Yester-millennium’s pencil case may be this century’s phone case, but slippers, perfumes and even candles are literally the oldest, least inspired items on the wish list. (And yet, who doesn’t slip on a new pair of cozy socks?) Other common gifts include terracotta figurines (sigillaria). Instead of representing the latest entry on Barbie’s ever-growing resume, however, they often came in the likeness of a deity or other unusual figure.
The religious aspects of the holiday are obviously not comparable. Although it’s comforting to know that for thousands of years, deeply serious matters as well as the wildly raucous and commercial have managed to coexist. And if a week-long public holiday of merry-making isn’t your thing — and it’s perfectly understandable if the Roman-esque gambling, heavy drinking, and other mischief-making are not your preferred December activities — history suggests that indulgent, even empty frivolity has not yet been able to eclipse more meaningful or spiritual reflections.
Even this tired, unwanted, and moderately entertaining dribble is older than the rag it’s published in. Roman writers like Martial who also thought their quips were too good to pass up offered unnecessary suggestions for gifts (like an ugly, but useful Gallic-made cape that lives on through the itchy wool sweater) and musings on the season.
And if you’ve made it this far just to huff and wonder why the holidays are all anyone can talk about this time of year, well, Scrooge, you’re as old as those who can’t contain their December joy. Pliny the Elder, one of history’s oldest party poopers, supposedly built a room in his home to drown out the holiday noise. Bah humbug.
Meanwhile the rest of us will be keeping up one tradition or another this coming week — whether it’s about the sun, the Son or any other kind of fun.
Io Saturnalia. (And a belated/early “happy holidays” to those whose big days don’t quite line up this week.)