Why we should all revel in the pagan roots of Christmas
There's always people trying to drag religion into Christmas, but you only had to look around the shopping centres and pubs over the past couple of weeks to see that the ancient tradition is alive and thriving.
Religious people are entitled to mark the occasion with the rituals and folk tales associated with their beliefs. But even popes now admit that the top folk tale - Bethlehem, manger, wise men, myrrh, ox, ass, etc - is no more than a sweet confection.
In his interesting book, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, published during Advent in 2012, Benedict XVI suggested that Jesus had been born years earlier than had previously been preached, that the event did not take place on December 25, that there was no basis for believing there was an ox and ass in a stable, or that the birth took place in a stable at all.
Despite this admission, this year, as every year, the Vatican has erected a nativity scene in St Peter's Square, complete with reverential livestock. That is what it has come to - the Catholic Church promoting stories that even popes don't believe in.
Loads of religions have marked the virgin birth of their main god at, or just after, the winter solstice. Osiris (Egypt), Adonis (Syria), Dionysius (Greece), Attis (Phrygia), Mithras (Persia) and a flock of other fatherless deities were all well-established long before Jesus was a gleam in the eye of the Holy Ghost.
The significance arises from the rhythm of nature. This is the moment when the world turns the cold corner of winter, when people in past times could celebrate survival, break open the stores, look forward to the warmth of spring on their faces and the miracle of the blossoming of new life.
The priests of imperial Rome consecrated the period from December 17 to December 25 as Saturnalia, in honour of the God Saturn. Thousands gathered in Saturn's Temple in the Forum to launch the festival with animal sacrifice.
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There followed a public banquet - with the emperor picking up the tab for the entire city - at which extravagant gifts were exchanged. Then came days of jubilation, giddy partying, gender swaps and unrestrained licentiousness.
Masters served their slaves. Tables groaned with roast boar, chickens stuffed with quails stuffed with sparrows, fish, sausages, cheese, olives, grapes and oceans of wine.
Naked carousers toured the streets chorusing risque songs. Slobbery kisses were planted on the cheeks of complete strangers. The cry of "Happy Saturnalia!" echoed across the city.
Eventually, the authorities decided that enough was enough. Saturn was barely being mentioned any more. Inn-keepers were swinging into Saturnalia mode earlier and earlier every year. Women were behaving in ways which would not only have been unthinkable at any other time of year, but which would until recently have been regarded as unacceptable even during Saturnalia.
Thus it was that Russian mathematician Dionysius Exiguus was invited by Pope John I in 527 AD to check whether there was any chance the newer and more demure (or so he thought) religion, Christianity, could provide a prayerful substitute for the commercialised craziness of Saturnalia.
Dionysius spent months studying various traditions, consulting ancient texts, gazing at the star-spangled sky and making intricate calculations on his state-of-the-art abacus before reporting back to John that, wonder of wonders, you're never going to believe this, Jesus was born on... December 25.
Christmas came to replace Saturnalia, consolidating the status of Christianity within the Empire. But things didn't work out as intended. Within a couple of years, the masses were painting Rome red again and revelling as raucously as ever.
The Christmas period became as boisterous as ever Saturnalia had been. The scenes in Irish town and city centres over recent weeks have been characterised by prim restraint compared with the earliest Christmas celebrations.
Don't let the old traditions lapse, say I. Lash it into you like there is no tomorrow. There may not be.
I have noticed over the years that Christians tend to resent these truths being told. That is not the intention here. Let us not end on a negative note.
Folk tales serve a function. The Christian myth hints at some commonsense truths.
Browsing the New Testament last week, I was struck by the sharp, contemporary relevance of the fiery monologue Luke gives to Mary as she anticipates Christ's birth (1, 46-55):
He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He has put down the mighty from their thrones;
and exalted those of low degree.
He has filled the hungry with good things;
and the rich He has sent empty away.
Could any pagan, Christian, Hindu or Holy Roller argue with that?
Peace, love and joy to all.