MODERN PAGANS, PART 5: SATURNALIA AND THE FEAST OF FOOLS
by Joanna Poppink
Between the dark and the light, in the moment when the god of thunder strikes his oak with lightning, the earth goes topsy turvy. What was long becomes short and vice versa. What was dark becomes light. What was hidden is about to emerge. What was dead or unborn is about to live.
In pre-Christian Rome, Saturnalia recognized this reversal in nature in a wild and grim revelry each December. All restraints of law and morality were unleashed. All class distinctions were abolished. The Feast of Fools began.
Masters served their slaves, accepting taunts and insults that would be punished by the lash or death any other time of year. The community selected one person to be King of Saturnalia. This mock king directed his subjects to get drunk, dance, carouse and be blatantly lewd and lascivious.
As an impersonater of the god Saturn, the King of Saturnalia was required to be obscenely sacrilegious and to indulge all his passions publicly. At the close of the festival he was expected to cut his own throat on Saturn's true altar and thus restore order. The King of Saturnalia became a clown in the Middle Ages, transformed into the Lord of Misrule, the spirit of festive anarchy. He was a comic monarch who rallied exuberant costumed citizens. Crowds paraded through torch-lined streets and created long processions in carts.
Lord of Misrule ordered the people to sing bawdy verses and drink to blind drunkenness. He commanded them to dance obscenely and for men to wear women's clothes. People freely gambled at the church altar.
This harlequin king had many names in many countries: King of the Bean in England, Abbas Stultorum in France (sic), the Abbot of Unreason in Scotland, the Abbe de la Malgouveme in France.
Under the Lord of Misrule, tradesmen gave gifts to their patrons. In Russia, peasants sang outside the houses of the lords and received gifts. But no grim death awaited this Lord as it did the martyr Saturnalia king.
The Catholic Church ended this bacchanal in the 16th Century as Reformation approached. But we still revel at Christmas. Businesses still give gifts to their customers. Caroling through the streets and singing to neighbors while standing on their doorsteps is still a contemporary custom. People in their warm homes at Christmas share hot chocolate, egg nog or hot brandied rum with carolers.
The sacrificial revel has a milder form today, with not deadly, but still serious consequences. The Christmas season is often a time of excess where we eat and drink too much and party into our needed work or sleep hours.
Many of us design a budget that fits reasonably into our financial position. At some point in December we see an item for ourselves or someone we care about. The item is way over our limit. We say, "But it's Christmas." Then we throw aside our budget and make the purchase.
Or we make extravagant promises of our time and resources, caught in the gaiety and generous spirit of the season. Sometime after New Year's, when the decorations come down and the credit charges come in, we are hit with the reality of what we have done.
The Feast of Fools is over, and we have to pay.
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