Thursday, December 17, 2015

Unwrapping the Christmas Gift

For ancient Romans 17th December marked the first day of their last major winter festival : Saturnalia, in honour of their god Saturn. There are already a handful of posts on Saturnalia, accessible from the Label Cloud in the sidebar. Let's see what else can be dredged up on the topic!

One of the major ingredients of our time's Christmas celebrations is the giving and receiving of gifts. Christians might suppose that this tradition stems from the story of the 3 Wise Men visiting the baby Jesus, bringing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh - not sure that's true, but seems likely. There's another reason though. Saturnalia. As well as a holiday from school for pupils, the establishment of a special market; freedom to gamble for all, slaves included; less restraints on drinking and more wine available to slaves; official dress (togas) not worn but all wore the pilleus -freed man's hat. [I wonder if this is the root of those darned paper hats beloved of Christmas party givers - in Britain if not in the USA?] Slaves were exempt from punishment and allowed to disrespect masters; also...getting to it now....another tradition of Saturnalia was the buying and giving of presents.

Lists of "what to buy for...whomever" in Roman times included: writing tablets of various kinds, dice, nuckle [sic] bones, moneyboxes, combs, toothpicks, a hat, a hunting knife, an axe, various lamps, balls, perfumes, pipes, a pig, a sausage, a parrot, tables, cups, spoons, items of clothing, statues, masks, books, pets.
(Information from Martial Epigrams Book 14 (c. 84 or 85 A.D.)

So, take Saturnalia's traditions, Sol Invictus celebrations, northern traditions of Santa Clausian activity and evergreen trees, add Christianity, stir briskly, leave to marinate for many centuries, and serve well seasoned!


Cassandra Clare said...


Sonny G said...

I remember my grandmother cutting some greenery, nuts and fruits in bowls around the main rooms and my papa riding us through different neighborhoods where folks had put up lights..

I can still smell that fresh greenery.

all the decorated boxes and bags you saw on my blog post are Empty:) just for looks..

its Christmas everyday , just being alive..

Twilight said...

Cassandra Clare ~ ?? Hmm- a comment on my post or on your own emotional state?

Twilight said...

Sonny ~ Yes, I have similar memories. The holly was always natural, mistletoe too. Paper chains we'd made ourselves used as garlands. Lights outside were not common in the UK back then, even now I doubt they're as common as in the USA. I remember my first Christmas tree had little candles in clip-on holders, rather than electric lights ardorning it - a definite fire hazard and I was not allowed to light the candles more than once, and for just a little while.

Your decor is lovely - empty boxes or not - and yours is a very good philosophy!

mike said...

The Native Americans of the West had giveaways known as a potlatch. The Jewish festival of lights, Hanukkah, includes gifting-gelting. Seems a ubiquitous tradition in some form or other in most cultures.

I'm a product of the American, non-religious, Xmas culture, which was an over-the-top display of glitter, glamour, abundance, and gifting. My parents were poor, but they always put-on the best Xmases. We had a beautiful pine tree with lots of lights, ornaments, and tinsel...I particularly loved the bubble We had no fireplace, but stocking were put-out and filled by Santa. Lots of presents under the tree on Xmas morning. My mother always baked lots of cookies that we kids decorated, plus she baked pies, made candies, and of course, the huge Xmas day dinner. It was quite a show of visuals, food, and gifts.

I had a number of Latino acquaintances in my adult years and it was a surprise to me finding that most Mexicans and South Americans celebrate Xmas with a few decorations, and that it was a day of religious celebration. Minimal gift giving. Most families make food and drinks available to their neighbors and essentially offer "open house" to the neighborhood on December 24th, and December 25th was a day of Christian-Catholic servitude, then respite with large dinners for the family members.

Unfortunately, American capitalism has greatly influenced the Xmas holiday, whether celebrated as religious, Pagan, or whatever. It has long been a glutinous affair of material indulgences and high expectations here in the USA. It's an obliquely misleading holiday for children, with the myth of Santa Claus' discriminate, naughty-or-nice gifting, providing emotional trauma to those children not receiving gifts. TV programs and commercials over-extend the possibility of these disadvantaged children as gift recipients.

"Decorating the Yule tree was also originally a Pagan custom; brightly colored decorations would be hung on the tree, usually a pine, to symbolize the various stellar objects which were of significance to the Pagans - the sun, moon, and stars - and also to represent the souls of those who had died in the previous year. The modern practice of gift giving evolved from the Pagan tradition of hanging gifts on the Yule tree as offerings to the various Pagan Gods and Goddesses."

Twilight said...

mike ~ Thank you for your interesting input and childhood memories. And yet another interesting (your last paragraph about Pagan custom) theory about the origin of gift-giving at Christmas. Perhaps all theories are correct, and perhaps have, over the centuries fed off one another to some extent.

I grew up in a mildly Church of England background. Attended Sunday School and church for some years before leaving home at 18 - was even a Sunday School teacher and secretary of our church youth club for a time. I still enjoy the Christmas story - but just as a story - like any other story. I enjoy contemplating the patchwork history of this time of year, and realising that it's not as simple a matter as some suppose!

mike (again) said...

FYI - Thought this was's from the latest issue of "Nature"...and it does relate to Saturn, though not Saturnalia...LOL.

"Myth 5: The human population is growing exponentially (and we're doomed)

Fears about overpopulation began with Reverend Thomas Malthus in 1798, who predicted that unchecked exponential population growth would lead to famine and poverty.

But the human population has not and is not growing exponentially and is unlikely to do so, says Joel Cohen, a populations researcher at the Rockefeller University in New York City. The world’s population is now growing at just half the rate it was before 1965. Today there are an estimated 7.3 billion people, and that is projected to reach 9.7 billion by 2050. Yet beliefs that the rate of population growth will lead to some doomsday scenario have been continually perpetuated. Celebrated physicist Albert Bartlett, for example, gave more than 1,742 lectures on exponential human population growth and the dire consequences starting in 1969.

The world's population also has enough to eat. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the rate of global food production outstrips the growth of the population. People grow enough calories in cereals alone to feed between 10 billion and 12 billion people. Yet hunger and malnutrition persist worldwide. This is because about 55% of the food grown is divided between feeding cattle, making fuel and other materials or going to waste, says Cohen. And what remains is not evenly distributed — the rich have plenty, the poor have little. Likewise, water is not scarce on a global scale, even though 1.2 billion people live in areas where it is.

'Overpopulation is really not overpopulation. It's a question about poverty,' says Nicholas Eberstadt, a demographer at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank based in Washington DC. Yet instead of examining why poverty exists and how to sustainably support a growing population, he says, social scientists and biologists talk past each other, debating definitions and causes of overpopulation.

Cohen adds that 'even people who know the facts use it as an excuse not to pay attention to the problems we have right now', pointing to the example of economic systems that favour the wealthy."

Twilight said...

mike (again) ~ Key words: "not evenly distributed". Yes interesting - thanks!
I'm sure Bernie Sanders would agree to all of that too - especially the last paragraph of the quote.

Still, though, I wonder if it's wise to advocate carrying on increasingly populating the planet in the state our lifestyles have put it right now. Also there's the question of exactly where additional population numbers could be housed properly - with politics and public opinion as they are in many countries! There's space aplenty in the USA, for instance, but there isn't always water there, and it would entail more electricity - more everything.
I can see both sides of the population argument - as things are now, anyway.