14 December 2012

Winter Foolery by Kathryn Kopple

By Kathryn A.Kopple

As we go about our holiday preparations, we may want take a moment to reflect on the unruly origins of some of our holiest traditions.  Our modern feasting and gift-giving December customs are tame affairs compared to the madcap, authority debunking, and outlandish revelry associated with the Feast of Fools, a medieval free-for-all if there ever was one.  The good men and women of the Middle Ages took their cue from the Saturnalia celebrations of antiquity, and they celebrated much as the Romans did: servants got a free work pass, nobles were lorded over by their staff, and naïfs were esteemed as wise men.  Sartorial codes were cast aside, and those on the lowest rungs of society attended sumptuous banquets, where their masters waited on them hand and foot.  The clergy switched places with the laity, mocking the Church, its doctrines and rites.  A young boy might preside over services as bishop or even pope.  Piety was scorned.  Gambling was permitted.  People took to the streets.  They ate, drank, and were violently merry; most likely because when the partying ended what was there to look forward to but cold, darkness, and hunger.

A Roman Calendar depicting
Saturnalian dice on the table
via Wikimedia Commons
The Saturnalia is often described as a pagan holiday.   And yet the Roman celebration has roots in both pagan and early Christian cultures.  One of the most popular accounts of this time of epic feasting was penned by Ambrosius Theodosius Macrobius (or simply “Macrobius,” who lived in the fifth century AD).  In “Saturnalia,” he describes himself as having been “born under foreign skies,” which has led to speculation that he may have been of Greek origin.   The book (a series of dialogues fashioned after Plato’s Symposium) is a compendium of Saturnalia practices, explanations of the Roman calendar, comparisons of pagan and Christian beliefs, the works of Vergil, as well as the meaning of insults,  jokes,  and riddles.  According to Macrobius, he and his guests spent most of a month celebrating the Saturnalia in this way: lazing about, philosophizing, debating, bantering, and, of course, drinking and feasting.

Other accounts describe the Roman Saturnalia as a one-day celebration to a week-long event coinciding with the winter solstice.   No serious business was to take place, people could dance naked, dice and other diversions (vices ordinarily) were perfectly acceptable.   Perhaps, in his infinite wisdom, Saturn thought a large dose of hedonism during one of the darkest times of the year would result in a happier society overall; or he may have felt that after, after all the hard work of sowing and reaping, planting and harvesting, people just needed a break.       

Ruins of the Temple of Saturn, Rome
via Wikimedia Commons
For the Romans, Saturn, often shown as wielding a scythe, ruled over agriculture.  The Greeks worshiped him as Cronus (sometimes called “Father Time”).  He was a Titan who had reined over a golden or mythical age of peace, civility, and prosperity.   However powerful, Cronus had his rivals, among them his father Uranus, whose eminent place in the Greek pantheon he usurped by having the Titan castrated.  Cronus then married his sister, Rhea, and together they had six children.  Believing his offspring—also being Titans—would scheme to overthrow him, Cronus ate one child after another as soon as they were born (as depicted in the unforgettable mural done by the Spanish painter Francisco José de Goya).  Only Zeus, with the help of his mother, survived.   She had Cronus served a potion that would cause him to vomit up their children (being gods they managed to survive their ordeal).  In accordance with his mother’s wishes, Zeus banished his father, along with the other Titans, to the furthest regions of the Underworld.

While the Romans worshiped Zeus or Jupiter (god of the sky) as the supreme overlord, they continued to pay their respects to Saturn.  Sun gods (Saturn was often referred to as the original sun) didn't die out so easily, never mind if they had been banished to the darkest places in the universe.  The Romans may have also felt themselves in some way as descended from Saturn, for it was widely believed that the Titan had sojourned in Italy.  It offers one explanation for enduring popularity of the Saturnalia.  Charity, exchanging gifts, during December holidays can be traced back to the Saturnalia, as well as our winter festivals of light and merriment.  Kings and queens, Catholics and Protestants, from different eras may have sought to put an end to all the carousing, but vestiges of the Saturnalia are still with us, despite its spirit of fun, foolery, and irreverence. 

The following sources were last consulted in December 2012
Cronus.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cronus

Praetextatus – Saeculum Praetextati: Macrobius’ Saturnalia”. www.maijastinakahlos.net/b/kirjoituksia/praetextatus/vettius-agorius-praetextatus-saeculum-praetextati-macrobius-saturnalia-ch-51/      

SATURNALIA: Sub sole nihil novi”. http://www.economist.com/node/327504

Kathryn Kopple is the author of Little Velásquez, an historical set in 15th century Spain.