Don’t be a misery - festive decadence has a fine heritage
City AM, 21 December 2012
EVERY December, eco-miserabilists and anti-consumerist curmudgeons attack people for indulging in Christmas-time debauchery.
Fancying themselves as experts on Christian festivals, these killjoys inform the moronic masses that boozing, overeating and splashing out on pressies is not what Christmas is supposed to be about. Christmas, they declare, is meant to be a time of reflection and goodwill.
As the Scrooges of the No Shopping Day outfit put it, thanks to consumerism we have all become “soulless” shoppers and partiers, and in the process have forgotten “the divine humility of the manger”. But these party poopers don’t know their history. Because the origins of Christmas lie precisely in debauchery and indulgence, not humility.
Today’s warriors for “real” Christmas values would have us believe that, for the best part of 2,000 years, people celebrated Christmas by being nice and restrained. Not so.
Christmas has its origins in the festival of Saturnalia, a stunningly debauched Roman festival which culminated in the Feast of the Unconquerable Sun on 25 December. That day was a celebration of the resurgence of the Sun following the Winter Solstice, and it was mental, properly Bacchanalian. There was role reversal, with masters waiting on their servants, while men dressed as women and everyone ate rich foods and took part in fertility rites (they had sex).
When Christianity became more widespread, it co-opted this old festival. It turned 25 December from a festival celebrating the return of the Sun to one commemorating the birth of the Son. But much of the sauciness of Saturnalia remained. For centuries, Christmas was a mix of new beliefs about baby Jesus and old desires to get your rocks off once a year.
In the Middle Ages, some European communities dressed up as animals at Christmas and performed lewd acts with one another. There emerged a Lord of Misrule, who would make people do hilariously humiliating things. And of course there was gluttony. One Christmas, Richard II held a party for 10,000 people, for which 2,000 oxen were slaughtered and 200 tonnes of wine were served.
Then came the Puritans in the seventeenth century, and the excesses of Christmas were trimmed. Oliver Cromwell stamped his boot on Christmas debauchery. It was later still, in the moralistic Victorian era, that the idea of Christmas as a quiet family affair emerged.
So today’s eco-saddos are not defending the “true spirit” of Christmas, but rather the Puritanical Christmas of relatively recent times. But with one important difference. Cromwell’s attack on Christmas was popular because it was seen as an attempt to rein in the behaviour of the filthy rich. Today’s miserabilists, by contrast, attack ordinary folk rather than kings for living large over the festive season, which makes it unlikely they’ll ever be popular.
So let the lords of misrule, gluttony and booziness reign this Christmas, as they did for centuries.
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