Saturday, 24 December 2011

Have we lost the true meaning of Saturnalia?

THE music was divine, the children’s voices heavenly, the acoustics in the old church near perfect. The deep baritone in one of the rear pews was pitched not to the treble of the choir but the lower notes of the accompanying organ.
For the first “Oh come let us adore him”, the baritone fell silent. At the second he joined in gently. At the third he came in on full boom, contributing his part to a joyous wall of sound that filled the church.
Never mind the Christian setting, the Christian message of the lyric, this was one atheist who was thoroughly enjoying the singalong. I know, because that man was me.
And I know I was not unwelcome in joining in, either. The vicar, Canon Kevan McCormack, made it quite plain in his excellent speech at the close of the school concert that all were welcome, of whatever religion or none.
That tolerance, and caring for others, were the important features we all shared and should encourage.
A message and an attitude which – of course – is not confined to the Church of England, but which nevertheless seems to sum up that church at its best.
One of my friends made a nice seasonal joke the other day. Maybe, on reflection, it wasn’t really a joke at all. It was more a statement of attitude, again one I rather share.
It went like this: “I’m sick and tired of all these Christians who have forgotten the true meaning of Saturnalia.”
Quite. Celebrating the birth of a new year, a new season, at the very dead of winter, is a splendid tradition that goes back a lot further than the birth of Christ.
New religions have always thrived best when they have adopted, and subtly altered, the rites, rituals and holy places of the older religions they have displaced.
Christianity has always been masterful at this, which probably accounts for its very survival in early centuries, as well as its widespread success from medieval times on.
A tradition of drinking, carousing and eating well with gathered family and friends around the winter solstice was well established in Rome – and no doubt a great many other places – long before Christianity was around to lay claim to it.
We know from their often astonishingly precise alignments that stone-age monuments such as stone circles and burial chambers were built by people who placed great importance in the winter solstice.
Father Christmas may have got his red coat from a Coca-Cola promotion (he used to be in green) and be more associated now with consumerism than Christ. But if you’re looking for “true meaning”, his origins appear to lie in the High German, Old English or Anglo-Saxon god Woden. So perhaps we should celebrate him every Wednesday.
Isn’t there something decidedly pagan in the Yule log, the ceremonial tree and the wreath?
And, come to think of it, don’t some of those old carols we all enjoy singing so much have more than a touch of the older religion about them? The greenwood and the fertility rite. The Holly and the Ivy.
So yes, as Canon McCormack puts it, we can all enjoy the lovely church buildings, the lovely music, the singing and togetherness.
And yes, we can – and should – all remember those less blessed than ourselves, be it through famine, war, pestilence or poverty.
And, as the great Dave Allen used to say, may your god go with you. At this time as at all times. Whichever god that may be. If you happen to have one.
Happy Hanukkah.


MY first reaction to news of the death of North Korea’s Great Leader Kim Jong-il was: “How could they tell?”
I wish this was original but it was in fact how Dorothy Parker, wit among wits, greeted the demise of former US President Calvin Coolidge in 1933.
My second reaction was to wonder what change – if any – it will bring about in that most benighted, most cut-off of countries.
By all accounts, change isn’t something they’ve had much of in North Korea since it was severed from the South (where change has been extreme and rapid) in the 1940s. Apart from the change between years of desperate famine and those of relative plenty.
Were those pictures of anguished wailing really typical of North Koreans’ reaction to the demise of their dictator?
Were they carefully selected for their propaganda value? Or do they reveal just how thoroughly people will accept and believe what they are told to believe?
Is it true that the North Koreans were shown film of their team celebrating the one goal they scored at South Africa 2010 – actually in a 2-1 defeat by Brazil – and told they had won the World Cup? Or is that just what WE were told?
How many impossible things can a people be made to believe before breakfast?
Including us?

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