It’s time for the revels of the ancient Roman Saturnalia. Saturnalia was officially celebrated on December 17th, in honor of Saturnus, the god of seed and sowing. It was eventually expanded to seven days, December 17-23. When the emperor Augustus tried to shorten the holiday to only three days, riots ensued.
During Saturnalia, social roles were symbolically reversed. Slaves were allowed a banquet that was supposed to be served by their masters. Of course, the role reversal in Roman times was mostly superficial; the banquet was usually prepared by the slaves themselves, along with their masters’ dinners (yeah, nothing ever changes).
Over the centuries the drunken, role-reversing Saturnalia merged with the Christmas celebration: gangs of drunks went roaming door to door, demanding food and drink, threatening vandalism if the lords of the manor refused (Wassail!). In America, the Puritans outlawed Christmas celebrations not only to avoid days of drunkenness and riot, but because they couldn’t bear the social role-reversals required by custom during the season (we must have order!).
How we arrived at the family-friendly turkey dinner, presents, and Father Christmas can be attributed to two books written in the nineteenth century: A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens and A Visit from St. Nicholas by Clement Moore. Both of these books helped create a more palatable version of the season’s celebrations (at least for property owners). No more drunken rabble beating on the manor door in the middle of the night.
A good book that traces how this celebration of social misrule was transformed into the sanitized celebration of today is Battle for Christmas by Stephen Nissenbaum.
It abounds in wonderful stories about gangs of men banging on upper-class doors late at night, singing, demanding food and drink; of carnivalesque riots in the streets…truly a book to warm the heart during this festive season.
I’m more of a solstice person myself. It’s all about the mystery of the long night. One winter solstice, a few years back, I was wandering around Bryn Mill Park in Swansea, Wales, at twilight, and came upon an elderly woman staring intently at a lone heron perched on a wire cage in the dead center of the park pond; her cold-reddened hands clutched a green vinyl purse.
I watched her watch the heron as the sky grew dark and a gibbous moon rose, shining in black water between pond reeds. How long I watched her staring – frozen, transfixed – I don’t know. The heron remained equally still, eyeing her. I imagined her face inside his eye. The reeds rattled in the wind…
Here are three somewhat seasonal poems
(from All The Beautiful Dead, a book coming out in the spring from Bitter Oleander Press ). The first, Tundra Swans, happened at Barker Reservoir in Nederland, Colorado, a small town about three thousand feet above Boulder, near the divide. I was standing down by the water when a flock of tundra swans landed…
Circling together off-shore, four
white and one dark, long arc
of the neck dipping down
to black water; raising black beaks
to falling snow, black water
sliding down the long throat; slow-
dipping again into the winter-black cold
otherworld beneath (The way
you can sometimes suddenly plunge your hands
into the night sky, feel around, touch
objects on the other side). Black beaks,
sensing the criss-cross ice-branch nets
concealing the still-curious eyes
of a mountain lion, long-dead.
Homeless. Not homeless
(How connected to the man selling his
homeless shelter’s newspaper
across from the Boulder bus station?
People passing all day he said – not one taker.
Me thinking how hard it is trying to
simultaneously be seen and keep out of sight).
Homeless. Not homeless. Come down
from the arctic, on their way to Texas, Baja.
The whole flyway an extension of their bodies
like black drops falling from black beaks
back to the black otherworld beneath.
(Previously published in 2River)
This second poem was written near the Great Sand Dunes National Park. We were camping and some snow fell during the night. I woke in the middle of the night and heard a flute playing in the distance. Dream? Snow spirit?
Bones are the origin of snow fog;
Dreams are the origin of trees
Fog slips through keyholes, door cracks,
Midnight: a tree, bare branches. Not far off
something stamps cold ground.
A man in an orange hat plays flute. Whoever’s in range
becomes an echo of wood.
Pine needles collect ice through the night: white fingers
interlaced. Morning is fire and water
The root of light
(Previously published in Cimarron Review)
The third poem comes from a time when I was living in Woodstock, New York, and traveled down to Philadelphia to see my mother for Christmas.
Showing my mother photos on my laptop the day after Christmas
Every time I show them to her
I notice the same thing: so few faces.
Trees, snails in walls, shells, patterns of lichen
on rock, rock
and moss, a snowman
with seaweed hair, Swansea Bay. She lights up
when she sees a face. “Who is that?”
She has seen these photos before, so many times,
What was it she wanted when she started out?
Bare trees follow me home.
Crossing the Delaware into New Jersey, up 287
to the New York state line. All the way,
the tantalizing pattern of bare branches.
I have spent my life
desperately trying to read them, knowing
there is no answer, acting
as if the answer is still there, just out of reach.
(Previously published in 2River)