Tuesday, December 21, 2004


It all began a few days ago. Men rushed, yelling, through the streets. Shops were looted. Little old ladies were violently knocked to the ground and stamped on by the throng. Younger women were sexually assaulted. Families, faced with a violated daughter, felt anger but accepted that there was nothing they could do — all the courts and police stations were closed. Mountains of food had been prepared and eaten; the week was marked by permanent hangover.

That was a description of the ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia, celebrated there between the 17th and (perhaps) 25th of December. Jolly historians like to refer to it smilingly, forgetting for a moment that the period of wondrously frightening excess in food, drink, sex and violence ended apruptly — with the death, by mob, of the ‘Lord of Misrule’, an enemy of the Roman state who was selected, deliberately, for a week–long life of excess and a horrible death. A symbol of the destruction of evil forces.

Weirdly, our Yuletide customs like eating gingerbread men also grew from Saturnalia — eating a human figure?! Ugh! Christian leaders had to let pagans keep their gingerbread men and their Saturnalia because the idea of being a Christian would have been unbearable without them! And lo, the Christian leaders then (rather desperately) decided that, since there was nothing even remotely Christian about Saturnalia, they’d better arbitrarily decide to celebrate Jesus’ birth on its last day. And then follow up immediately with their own twelve–day–long religious feast to balance things out a bit. Aww. Sweet. Ickle baby Jesus! Coochee–coo!

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