06 January 2010

'A Holiday Can Be Celebrated Without Extravagant Festivity'—Comments on Saturnalia


When, in my post on Saturn, I quoted Charles Huttar’s observation that C.S. Lewis was alluding to the Roman Saturnalia festival in his poem ‘The Turn of the Tide’, I had intended to add another thing or two on that subject, but unfortunately I forgot.

Catullus famously described the Saturnalia as ‘our day of days’ (14.15). [1] H.J. Rose claims that it fell ‘originally on December 17th, but later extended to three, four, five or even seven days’. [2] But according to one site, citing Macrobius's work, Saturnalia:

Originally, it was celebrated on only one day, the fourteenth before the Kalends of January (December 19). With the Julian reform of the calendar, however, two days were added to December, and the Saturnalia was celebrated sixteen days before the Kalends (December 17), ‘with the result that, since the exact day was not commonly known—some observing the addition which Caesar had made to the calendar and others following the old usage—the festival came to be regarded as lasting for more days than one’ (I.10.2).

Rose explains how the holiday was observed:

. . . [The Saturnalia] to begin with resembled the Greek harvest-feast of the Kronia, for during it there were no social distinctions, slaves had a holiday and feasted like their masters, and all restrictions were relaxed, one being the prohibition on gambling with dice, which was supposed to be in force at other times of the year. It was, however, a more thoroughgoing season of jollity than the Kronia, at least in historical times, ‘the best of all days’, says Martial. Civilians and soldiers alike celebrated it, it was usual to choose by lot a Lord of Misrule (Saturnalicius princes, ‘leading man of the Saturnalia’), and gifts were exchanged. [3]

But the most interesting thing to me concerning Saturnalia is Seneca’s comments on it in his 18th Letter to Lucilius. There the great Stoic seems to anticipate to a striking degree Christian teaching on the proper celebration of Christmas:

It is the month of December, and yet the whole city is in a sweat! Festivity at state expense is given unrestricted license. Everywhere there echoes the noise of preparations on a massive scale. It all suggests that the Saturnalia holidays are different from the ordinary working day, when the difference is really non-existent—so much so in fact that the man who said that December used to be a month but is now a year was, in my opinion, not far wide of the mark!

If I had you with me I should enjoy consulting you and finding out what course you think we should follow: should we make no alteration in our daily habits, or should we take off our togas—time was when a change from formal wear would come about only during periods of grave political upheaval, whereas with us it happens for holidays’ and pleasure’s sake!—and have dinner parties with a note of gaiety about them, to avoid giving the impression that we disagree with the ways of those around us? If I know you as well as I think I do and you had to give a decision in the matter, you would say that we should be neither altogether like nor altogether unlike the festive-hatted crowd. But perhaps this is the very season when we should be keeping the soul under strict control, making it unique in abstaining from pleasure just when the crowd are all on pleasure bent. If the soul succeeds in avoiding either heading or being carried away in the direction of the temptations that lead people into extravagant living, no surer proof of its strength of purpose can be vouchsafed it. Remaining dry and sober takes a good deal more strength of will when everyone about one is puking drunk [vomitante populo]; [4] it takes a more developed sense of fitness, on the other hand, not to make of oneself a person apart, to be neither indistinguishable from those about one nor conspicuous by one’s difference, to do the same things but not in quite the same manner. For a holiday can be celebrated without extravagant festivity. [5]


[1] Roy Arthur Swanson, trans., Odi et Amo: The Complete Poetry of Catullus (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1977), p. 15.

[2] H.J. Rose, Ancient Greek & Roman Religion, Two Volumes in One: Vol. 2 (NY: Barnes & Noble, 1995), p. 77.

[3] Ibid., p. 77.

[4] Walter C. Summers, ed., Select Letters of Seneca (London: Macmillan, 1962), p. 19.

[5] Seneca, Letters from a Stoic: Epistulae Morales ad Lucilium, trans. Robin Campbell (London: Penguin, 1969), pp. 66-7.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Christ is born!
Thanks for posting this interesting interaction from Seneca. I came across this quotation recently as well and I thought about posting it. I am glad you posted it.

Joseph Patterson

aaronandbrighid said...

Glorify Him! I'm glad you liked it. I've meant to post this for a long time, having been really struck by it when I first read Seneca 8 or 9 years ago. Stoic ethics has much in common, though important differences as well, with Orthodox Christianity.