It being Christmas, I've been thinking about Saturnalia, of course, and this led me to remember a fascinating passage in Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Writing in 601 AD, Pope Gregory sends Abbot Mellitus to help out Augustine, the first Roman missionary to the Anglo-Saxons in Britain. Among various instructions, he says this:
When, therefore, Almighty God shall bring you to the most reverend Bishop Augustine, our brother, tell him what I have, upon mature deliberation on the affair of the English, determined upon, viz., that the temples of the idols in that nation ought not to be destroyed; but let the idols that are in them be destroyed; let holy water be made and sprinkled in the said temples, let altars be erected, and relics placed. For if those temples are well built, it is requisite that they be converted from the worship of devils to the service of the true God; that the nation, seeing that their temples are not destroyed, may remove error from their hearts, and knowing and adoring the true God, may the more familiarly resort to the places to which they have been accustomed.
And because they have been used to slaughter many oxen in the sacrifices to devils, some solemnity must be exchanged for them on this account, as that on the day of the dedication, or the nativities of the holy martyrs, whose relics are there deposited, they may build themselves huts of the boughs of trees, about those churches which have been turned to that use from temples, and celebrate the solemnity with religious feasting, and no more offer beasts to the Devil, but kill cattle to the praise of God in their eating, and return thanks to the Giver of all things for their sustenance; to the end that, whilst some gratifications are outwardly permitted them, they may the more easily consent to the inward consolations of the grace of God. For there is no doubt that it is impossible to efface everything at once from their obdurate minds; because he who endeavours to ascend to the highest place, rises by degrees or steps, and not by leaps.
Augustine and his helpers were not sent on a destructive mission. They were not sent to wipe the slate clean of anything that had any relation to paganism and start all over. The were not afraid of paganism, because they were confident that Christ would prevail over it. They also understood that nothing was so universally human as the love of a good party. Their parties and places of celebration were to be lovingly and gently Christianised, the good aspects kept and the evil or dangerous ones phased out.
This gentle, inclusive spirit surely also inhabited the Christian adoption of aspects of the Roman festival of Saturnalia into the Christmas celebration. Saturnalia, the festival of the Roman harvest god Saturn, ran from December 17 to the winter solstice on December 23. It was a celebration, a time of feasting and gift giving, a holiday in which there were both public and private feasts. It was also a festival of misrule, in which masters served their slaves, children ruled their parents, and the festival was presided over by a Lord of Misrule whose absurd and chaotic commmands must be obeyed.
The mid-winter date of Christmas is not a great match for the Gospel stories of Jesus' birth with their shepherds sleeping in the fields and Joseph and Mary travelling cross-country to Bethlehem. Yet what could be more Christian than an upside down festival like Saturnalia? How better to celebrate the birth of a king who entered his city on a donkey and died for his people, who took little children on his knee, healed lepers, touched bleeding women, befriended Samaritans and gave it to the chief priests and leaders of Israel with both barrels?
Wouldn't it be great if we had our own Saturnalia. We could go and sleep in tents and demountable huts while homeless people and refugees occupied our homes. We could wait on the tables of the starving. Our politicians could answer their own phones and open their own letters while their admin staff made decisions of state. It would be thrilling and dangerous. Some of the decisions of our misrulers might turn out to be better than those of our regular rulers. Perhaps we might even make it permanent.
Happy Saturnalia everyone!