How About a Saturnalia Display?

There are only two valid choices for a secular government agency to make, constitutionally, when it comes to allowing religious displays on its property: Allow everyone in, or allow nobody to erect such displays. What the Constitution forbids is playing favorites.
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'Tis the season.

What season? Well, that depends upon your belief system, doesn't it?

For Christians, it is the season of Advent, the season of Noël -- in short, the season of Christmas. For Jews, it is the season of Hanukkah. For Muslims, it is the season of Eid.

For others, joining in the mirth has now come to mean celebrating the season of Festivus, a made-up holiday from a made-up television show. And even the Flying Spaghetti Monster adherents are getting in on the fun this year.

Historically, America has treated Christmas as the sole holiday worthy of governmental approval. After all, in the federal schedule of holidays, there is one and only one religious holiday: Christmas Day. The mail doesn't move, the courts are closed, and all non-emergency government services are shuttered. Sooner or later, someone's going to get around to suing to change this, but nobody's been that bold in the courts yet. If America is a secular nation, after all (it says so right here on the label), then why -- in any god's name -- should it recognize one religion over another in such a fashion? But since this hasn't happened yet, we only mention it in passing as a thought exercise for civil rights lawyers to contemplate -- on their day off, perhaps.

No doubt if such a lawsuit ever advanced, it would provide proof positive, for some, that a "war on Christmas" does in fact exist. What is laughable about this is that the real war on Christmas celebrations was waged by some of the first colonists. Puritans in New England rejected virtually all of what we now know as Christmas celebrations, and at times they did so with the force of law behind them. Government offices and courts were open on Christmas Day, and all holiday revelry was either severely frowned upon or banned outright. This is the real history of some of the earliest Christmases in America, and nothing these days even comes close. Part of the fight was due to the Protestant/Catholic schism. Christmas was largely considered a Catholic holiday (after all, the name is a shortening of "Christ's Mass"), and the celebrations of the holiday were a bone of contention in England (where the Puritans came from). Even by the time of the American Revolution, Christmas wasn't largely celebrated here, especially in New England.

As time went by, however, the popularity of Christmas grew. After all, it is a fun holiday with plenty of fine traditions reaching back into the mists of Christianity. Well, um, no. In fact, this is part of what upset the Puritans: Most Christmas traditions were stolen directly from the pagans. The Christmas tree, the Yule log, wreaths, candles, the very date itself (which used to fall on the Winter Solstice, long before the Gregorian calendar was adopted), gift giving, holiday cards in verse, wassailing (or just plain getting drunk with holiday cheer), holly, mistletoe, kissing under the mistletoe, the "12 days" of Christmas, eating a feast, even hooking up at the office party -- pretty much none of these had anything to do with Christians. All were pagan winter holiday rituals without a shred of connection to the baby Jesus whatsoever, before the church decided to file off the serial numbers and declare such traditions their own. Ironically enough, the biggest Christmas tradition that today's traditionalist religious leaders tend to decry -- Santa Claus -- is one of the few that arose directly from Christianity itself (there really was a Saint Nicholas, although all the "magic elf who gives naughty and nice children presents" trappings were added later).

But not many delve into this history, preferring instead to bask in hazy "historic" memories of what Christmas is and how we should celebrate it. And somewhere along the way, this became an excuse for demanding that Christmas be the only holiday acknowledged during the holiday season. Not only were all the older, pagan traditions defended (as being "Christian" celebrations), but no other holidays were to be honored at all.

As always in America, this is all fine and good when we're talking about private homes and businesses and houses of worship. Nobody's suggesting that a Christian church be somehow forced to put up any other religious display than a manger scene, after all. But the battle is truly joined in the public square. Municipal decorations on city streets (often paid for by downtown merchants) are one thing, but when we are talking about religious displays in a public park or at a governmental building, that is quite another, constitutionally.

Which is how we end where we began. There are only two valid choices for a secular government agency to make, constitutionally, when it comes to allowing religious displays on its property: Allow everyone in, or allow nobody to erect such displays. What the Constitution forbids is playing favorites, allowing one religion to set up a display, but not any other -- even though, historically, this did indeed happen for a long time in America, up through the 20th century. But "that's the way we always did it" just isn't good enough anymore. This has led mostly to menorahs being set up alongside Christmas trees in public parks across America. You can almost hear the government agencies say to themselves with relief, "There. We included Jews. Good enough, right?"

Unfortunately for them, there is also a long tradition in America of rampant silliness. And rampant silliness seems to be busting out all over, which is fine with me, really, since I enjoy a good dose of rampant silliness as much as the next guy.

So I do applaud the Flying Spaghetti Monster displays. This mock religion was created to mock religion, in fact. Why shouldn't they have an equal soapbox to do so, at the one time of year when religions are allowed such prominent public displays? I also applaud fans of Seinfeld who deal with their city or state's red tape and get the proper permit to erect a Festivus pole in their courthouse or statehouse -- even if it is made out of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer cans.

In fact, I would go further than even the PBR cans, because, knowingly or not, such a holiday display actually celebrates one of the longest midwinter traditions humankind has ever enjoyed: getting drunk as a skunk. I would suggest that future silliness purveyors dig further back in time and come up with an even better holiday display: one that honors the god Saturn.

The holiday season of Saturnalia was celebrated in late December for centuries. It involved a sacrifice at the Temple of Saturn, feasting, gift giving, candles, and of course heavy drinking and lots of revelry and gambling. Borrowing from other pagan ceremonies across Europe at the time, this also occasionally involved "world turned upside-down" situations, where masters would eat with (or even serve) their slaves. Fake "kings" would sometimes be crowned, and they could then order anyone to do anything (and their imagination knew few bounds as to what that "anything" could be). These false rulers, sadly, were often the human sacrifices at the end of the celebration, though.

OK, sure, Saturnalia had a dark side, but it also seems to have been the origin (or at least the historical conduit) for a lot of the rituals that Christians practice today -- which seem to be even older, historically, than a lot of other Christmas/pagan traditions. This deserves recognition alongside all the other seasonal displays. Some enterprising group looking for something slightly less silly than a Festivus pole could come up with a display honoring Saturnalia (to get the ideas rolling, here's a fine sculpture on the subject) to proudly erect in a statehouse somewhere.

Of course, modern Saturnalia revelers would have to jettison the whole human-sacrifice thing in order to gain any sort of wide acceptance. That goes without saying, almost. Minus the darker aspects, though, it'd be just another way for non-Christians to "steal back" all the holiday traditions originally swiped from pagans. After all, who isn't for a bit of gift giving, candles, feasts and drinking at this time of year? Rather than putting the "Christ" back into "Christmas" (as so many religious leaders beg for, in vain, every year), why not just take the "Christ" completely out of Saturnalia? That way everyone can join in. Take the beer-can Festivus pole display to its logical and historical conclusion!

Happy holidays, everyone, no matter what you happen to be celebrating....

Chris Weigant blogs at:

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