Saturnalia took place every year to signify the end of the growing season, a time to enjoy a final taste of fresh fruits, vegetables, and meats before they were dried and stored for the winter. It also marked an annual orgy; a week of drinking, over-indulgence and sinful excess; a remarkable surge in childbirths followed nine months later.
The Church hoped to end the debauchery by falsely declaring December 25th as the day of Christ’s birth. Villagers and peasants throughout Europe subsequently were expected to worship the Virgin Birth at the end of the year, instead of celebrating nature’s produce and one another.
Unfortunately for the Church, cultural change tends to be slow, especially when trying to transform those aspects of culture that most enjoy. Centuries later, for a few decades preceding the American Revolution, leaders of various Protestant sects in New England gave up even trying to change public behavior on December 25th and banned Christmas altogether.
However, about 150 years ago, another group of powerful interests sought to change the meaning and celebration of Christmas. Just as the Church tried to reform the cultural norms of the Romans, an emerging corporate elite sought to transform how people behaved at the end of December. Rather than a time of communal debauchery or, subsequently, a period in which all were expected to worship Christ, corporate interests looked for opportunities to change Christmas into a time for individuals to purchase and exchange commodities.
Unlike the Church’s efforts, the corporate transformation proved incredibly successful, probably because it involves a way of celebrating that many, at least to some level, find hard to resist. For thousands of years people found meaning in their lives, a sense of identity and, pleasure through their relations with others; and Saturnalia, was certainly one of most exciting of these communal events.
Alongside industrialization came the fragmentation of communities into individualized contract workers. And with urbanization and its displacement of millions from their villages and traditional extended families came a kind of social-psychological vacuum. Accompanying this growing culture of isolation and emptiness was a broad range of "inventions" primarily developed to serve the interests of corporations, including electricity, the telegraph, and the Department Store. Together, they facilitated further urbanization, more efficiency, and importantly, more potential sales. The Department Store, for example, became a central gathering place in most cities; people were free to browse and, for the first time, were not expected to buy anything. Through the magic of electrical illuminations, potential customers now could see all the goods and potential lifestyles available to those hard-working individuals with money.
For Department Stores and the capitalists behind the production, Christmas soon became an opportunity to sell more goods by associating these commodities with social-psychological needs emerging in people’s lives. As urbanization and industrialization proceeded, corporations successfully associated Christmas with what we now take for granted; December 25th became a time for individuals and families to re-unite and, in the absence of truly intimate relationships, familial bonds were expressed through an exchange of purchased clothes, toys and innumerable other products.
Quite suddenly Christmas had become a family holiday, something quite different from what the Church originally intended when it labeled the day as Christ’s birth. Also, through the mystical re-manufacturing of Christmas by corporations as a day – and now a "season" – for buying and exchanging gifts, the emerging world of atomized relations and fragmented communities could them-selves be exploited as a social-psychological vacuum in which the selling of commodities could be perpetuated.
Today, through the twists, turns and power interests shaping history, Christmas again has become a time of debauchery. From its roots as an agrarian pagan orgy, followed by the attempt to transform it into a religious holiday for the community, it’s now become another kind of orgy, this time a capitalist one.
In our economic system, this faith in Christmas as a celebration of love through consumption has become so deeply entrenched, it exists in the very marrow of our cultural existence. But more significantly, and paradoxically, its ascendancy has paralleled the near collapse of the bases of life and love itself the environment in which we all live.
Over these past 150 years, humanity has consumed more of the earth’s resources and has caused more ecological damage than all the generations, living tens of thousands of years before the mid-19th century, combined. Now, the "developing" world is being told about the wonders of our consumerist religion, and Christmas is being used as a core means of promulgating the faith; a faith being promoted even in non-Christian cultures.
During this annual period of mass manipulation and worship of consumption that is ever-more tenuously disguised as a Christian holiday, I think we might want to peel back the mythologies surrounding this particular celebration. The holiday’s superficial embrace of the family and exploitation of humanity’s search for meaning and identity, in the name of selling, cannot survive if we strip away its veneer and refuse to play the games associated with its mystical, commodities-equals-love equation.
Instead, let us celebrate Christmas in the spirit of the original Roman festival let’s have a really good time as members of a community rather than just individuals and fragmented families. Even better, give everyone you know (warning: here comes a Madison Ave clich) "the gift that really matters." Refuse to use cash as an expression of your feelings. By not taking part in our religious celebration of commodity exchange, not only will we make a tiny dent in the capitalist machine that eats away at our ecological existence, we’ll also remind ourselves (and others) that time and community need to be embraced more than money and isolation.
Above all else, by taking even a small step in challenging our culture’s latest version of Christmas, we begin the process of collectively realizing that, as human beings, we manufacture our own existence. Indeed, we’ve even manufactured something as seemingly timeless and sacred as Christmas.
Instead of an orgy of consumption, I’d like to think that we can apply our faith and mystical resources towards cultural vibrancy, the nourishment of community, and a belief system based not on happiness through consumption but, instead, on happiness through creativity and environmental sustainability.
On December 25th let’s toast the beginning of yet another re-invention of Christmas, this time with an emphasis on savoring the joys of being part of a community with an emphasis on an emerging ecological peace on earth.
Let the new orgiastic Christmas tradition begin!
Edward Comor is an Associate Professor at the University of Western Ontario in London, Canada. This article originally appeared on COA News. Sign up for the FREE COA News Alert service.