Tuesday, December 24, 2013

And so this is Christmas...

NTodd has made me think again about the connection between Christmas and Saturnalia.  Here's why most people think the two began as one:

For New Year, Posumus, ten years ago,
You sent me four pounds of good silver-plate.
The next year, hoping for a rise in weight
(For gifts should either stay the same or grow),
I got two pounds. The third and fourth produced
Inferior presents, and the fifth year's weighed
Only a pound--Septicus' work, ill-made
Into the bargain. Next I was reduced
To an eight-ounce oblong salad-platter, soon
It was a miniature cup that tipped the scales
At even less. A tiny two-ounce sppon
Was the eighth year's surprise. The ninth, at length,
And grudgingly, disgorged a pick for snails
Lighter than a needle. Now, I note, the tenth
Has come and gone with nothing in its train.
I miss the old four pounds! Let's start again!

Martial, tr. James Michie

The only problem is, that tradition had died out in Rome before the Feast of the Nativity got there in the mid 4th century.  And gifts weren't associated with Christmas, or even the Magi's visit, not gifts among peers as Saturnalia was practiced, until the 19th century.

As NTodd points out in two posts, gift giving went from wealthy to poor, not from equals to equals.  Even Clement Clark Moore saw the gift giving as from him to his children, his children replacing the demanding serfs and peasants of an earlier England.  The echo of those demands in children today demanding the "hottest" toy for Christmas is ironic.

Anyway, gift giving was not between peers, and it wasn't reciprocal.  Oddly, no one thinks of the Magi laying their gifts before Mary and Jesus and waiting in anticipation for what Jesus and Mary got them.  That cliche has become the anxiety of our age (it's made it's way into commercials to convince you to buy MORE Xmas presents this year, lest you be caught empty-handed and unable to reciprocate.  Which, of course, doesn't make it a gift at all, but simply another part of the economy.  Which the nightly news reminds us every day this time of year, is all that it really is.  Buy something for yourself, too; after all, you're peerless.)  There are connections made to the Magi, with gifts exchanged on January 6 (Epiphany) or with St.Nicholas (Dec. 6), but these are largely retrojections looking for support for modern practices.  Reciprocity came as a matter of industrialization.  Once merchants and manufacturers figured out how lucrative this could be, it couldn't be confined to children; it had to extend to spouses and family and even friends.

Which connects it to Saturnalia in the end, but only because the Romans got there first, not because we followed their path.  Given the structure of society, which is more Roman than we realize, especially in America, maybe that is inevitable.

Which gives a whole new meaning to the depressive side of the holidays, doesn't it?

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