Sunday, 2 December 2012

The Holiday Season In The Ancient World 1: Gifts

Marcus Valerius Martialis  (known in
 English as Martial)  (March 1, 40 AD – 
between 102 and 104 AD)
Well, like it or not, the Holiday Season is upon us - our entry into December puts us undeniably into the start of three weeks of increasing frenetic consumer activity.  As an Atheist, I still like the vast majority of Christmas customs and paraphernalia.

I have a degree in Classics that I like to brush off and use every so often to hopefully amuse others.  This will be the first part of a series of glimpses into the Holiday Seasons of ancient cultures.  You'll notice that not a lot has changed.

This first glimpse is from the Roman poet Martial, who generally got paid for writing witty things. Well the stress of gift-giving around the last week of December was well into swing long before Jesus supposedly showed up.

The festival was called Saturnalia:
Saturnalia was an ancient Roman festival in honor of the deity Saturn originally held December 17 and later expanded with festivities through December 23. The holiday was celebrated with a sacrifice at the Temple of Saturn in the Roman Forum and a public banquet, followed by private gift-giving, continual partying, and a carnival atmosphere that overturned Roman social norms: gambling was permitted, and masters provided table service for their slaves. 
It's pretty certain that the Catholic Church saw the Saturnalia revelry, which continued on into the 3rd and 4th centuries, and decided they had to integrate as much as possible into their Church calendar.  I mean, it was working well for the Pagans!  So to compensate they actually had Jesus born on the 25th.  Or maybe the Romans were unconsciously celebrating Christmas all this time and didn't know it? Yeah, that must be it!

Here's Martial's take on gifts.  The translation below is more inline with the actual strength and tenor of Martial's work than most of the lousy 18th and 19th century translations out there who try to censor his words or leave the more sexually explicit poems untranslated.
Book X:29 My Gifts
That dish you’d send to me on Saturn’s day,
you send to your mistress now, Sextilianus:
that green outfit you gave her on the Kalends,
those called after Mars, that my toga’s paid for.
Your girls begin to cost you nothing now:
Sextilianus, you’re fucking with my gifts.
Well, t'is the season!

Editors Note: At first I thought the poem had to do with re-gifting, but on reading it again it just has to do with Sextilianus being stingy to poor Martial to impress a girl.

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