By Cameron Saunders
In Connecticut on Christmas Eve 2018, my brother and I were up until 3AM drinking Presbyterians – ginger beer, bourbon and angostura bitters on ice – which we consider to be something of a family drink. Every time we convene at my mom’s place we drink many strong Presbyterians, made easy by the fact that my stepfather keeps two-liter-sized bottles of Woodford Reserve in the liquor cabinet at all times.
Mother has three children – sister, brother, and myself – and we each have our own room. She keeps the primary house speaker centrally equidistant to each of ours’ doors. No matter how late we stay up the night before, she always wakes us at 9AM to NPR’s All Things Considered played at an unreasonably high volume.
But today is December 25th so instead of All Things Considered, NPR has on all three hours of Handel’s Christmas oratorio, The Messiah.
Past the lead spike I feel punching through the back of my skull, I can hear my sister yelling from her room: “Goddamn it, Mom, will you turn off the fucking radio!” My mother’s poodle then starts violently scratching at my door. The poodle suffers from bi-polar disorder and is currently manic.
Festivals have always been important touchstones in the history of humanity. And I don’t mean those festivals where you have to squat naked in a hot tent and cough in front of a security guard so he can see if drugs fall out of your anus. I mean festivals that are the touchstones of the calendar; that demarcate the end of planting, the end of harvesting; that are so symbolic of our continued survival as a species, they become imbued with religious significance, assuming traditions the meanings of which are lost to time. I especially like the Christmas festival because, having gone on for so long, it has the power to viscerally connect us with our distant ancestors; and in other ways it can, even more viscerally, connect us with our immediate, still living ancestors.
To disabuse anyone of the notion that the original Christmas had anything to do with Jesus, look to the ancient Roman holiday of Saturnalia, a six-day harvest festival that fell on December 17-23. The biggest holiday in the calendar, it had been centuries old by the time Christ came along.
This festival was for Saturn, inaugurated with a sacrifice at the temple of that old god of planting. Gift giving was the norm. Children got toys and sweets. Similar to our ‘Merry Christmas,’ there was a greeting used only during the holiday season: ‘Io, Saturnalia.’ Role reversal temporarily suspended the social order. This was something which did not survive into our modern version. Masters would become slaves and serve their chattel dinner. Wild, colorful clothing arrayed those with an otherwise staid color palette. Banquets, drinking, and sick orgies with erotic deviations went on unimpeded. Gambling became legal and, for those six days, the streets echoed with the flagrant rolling of dice.
It is hard to know what exactly Romans ate on Saturnalia, though some clues can be gleaned from ancient sources. One thing that is for sure: pork was the emperor of meats for the Romans. The poet Martial once wrote: “A pig will make you a good Saturnalia.” Presaging modern Italy’s welfare state, bread was doled out to citizens on the holiday. Then there were the winter vegetables and the pickles: turnips, onions, leeks and beets. Wine would be boiled with dates, spices and honey. They knew not of cane sugar.
The second part of The Messiah is climaxing – the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ – as the three of us make our way down to the living room, where the tree is. In addition to the beautifully wrapped presents there is a beading ice bucket next to which stands my stepfather, a sublime look on his face as he carefully pours Veuve Clicquot into crystal champagne flutes.
My mother walks in behind us carrying a large silver platter piled with slices of Greenberg smoked turkey.
Though my mother hasn’t eaten meat for forty years, she makes an exception around the holidays and has a bite of Greenberg smoked turkey, a vestige of her own childhood spent in Dallas.
The Greenberg turkey is from Tyler, Texas. For the last century, the same family has been treating the birds with pepper in their enormous smokehouse and then shipping them nationwide. Mother ate them as a child and so did we, usually on bread with Durkee’s.
She takes a look at me and frowns. “Are you going to shave before dinner tonight, Angel?”
My brother – who is a whiny bitch – pipes in: “Mom, it doesn’t matter. It’s not like there’s anyone here.” My mother raises her eyebrows in a mix of exasperation and judgement, and then sits down on the couch and has a sip of champagne.
My sister, too, sips: “This is too cold.”
“Oh shut up and open your presents.”
The champagne courses coolly down my throat like an emollient. The spike that had made it halfway into my cortex immediately begins to recede.
The poodle starts viciously attacking the wasted wrapping paper accumulating near my brother's feet, almost spilling his drink: “Oh-my-fucking-God mom, when are you going to train this dog.”
“Isn’t Xiexie cute?”
Saint Nicholas of Myra (modern-day Turkey) is a bishop who lived in the 4th century, the high Late Antique period when the old pagan order is, with historical finality, succumbing to Christendom.
The bishop likes giving gifts to children.
One story has a poor man in his bishopric with three daughters who couldn’t afford their marriage dowries. They were about to be given over to a life of prostitution. Hearing of this, the bishop creeped to the window one night and gave enough gold for the first daughter to be married. The second night, he gave enough for the second daughter. On the third, he was caught by the father. He was grateful – and he got the gold for his third’s dowry – but the bishop insisted he tell no one.
He came silently in the night – a phantom in a mitre – and here we begin to see the Christmas story becoming something mildly familiar.
Saint Nicholas Day is December 6th. Once Martin Luther knocks out the saints, with historical finality, during the 16th century Reformation, he thinks it wise not to eradicate this wildly popular gift-giving day. Instead, he moves it up to the 25th.
As a separate matter, December 25th had since the Emperor Constantine in (again) the 4th century been celebrated as Jesus’s birthday. (It was never actually Jesus’ birthday: it had, out of similar convenience, replaced a popular sun-worshiping pagan holiday.) Luther proposes replacing Saint Nicholas with the Christ Child (Christkindl – Kris Kringle), a majestically arrayed baby with wings and a halo around his infant head.
Martin Luther showed us the way: even if it’s against your religion don’t eliminate Christmas completely, just change it a bit. Change it so it suits your needs and longings and becomes what you want it to be.
I put the kibosh on Handel – too much of a good thing – and now Darlene Love is humming along.
Opening the largest box in my pile of presents, I behold a full-length beige tweed overcoat. This coat, I say to myself, is going to take me to fascinating heights.
My sister asks mother what we’re going to have for dinner.
“Barbecued shrimp, grilled chicken, wild rice, parmesan zucchini, and black beans. And the Greenberg turkey if y’all want.”
My brother starts getting mad. He is mad at my mother for being a pescatarian. He’s mad at my stepfather because his heart condition precludes him from eating butter or fats. He’s mad that the new blazer he got from my mom is a size too big, which means he’ll have to spend $100 getting it taken in. He’s mad because he has a hangover, is tired and dehydrated. He’s mad at the poodle for being such an idiot. He’s mad at me because he wants my coat and is jealous. Most of all though, he’s mad about the food.
“Why can’t we just have a normal Christmas meal with traditional food? Why can’t we just have a ham like my friends? And potatoes!”
“Your friend is from Virginia. Hams are native to there!”
“SHUT THE FUCK UP!”
I take a sip of champagne. Everyone is getting liquid.
In Protestant countries, Christmas keeps elements of the disavowed Catholic one. In England, Saint Nicholas becomes Father Christmas. Though he no longer has a mitre, he still has a ridiculous hat. In those places where Catholics and Protestants live in close proximity to one another – like the Low Countries – the two strains of the holiday become increasingly confused.
But, really, it’s when the Europeans land on the shores of the New World – and to the young United States, especially – that they blend together and become our Christmas myth, an amalgamation of half-truths and historical expedience. The Dutch Sinterklaas breeds with the British Father Christmas who has already bred with the Saint Nicholas of the German and Irish Catholics. We end up with Santa Claus. Interestingly, the sleigh and the reindeer become a mainstay just around 1816, the record-cold year when summer was drowned out by the spewing ash of the Mount Tambora volcano in Indonesia on the other side of the world. Apparently the sledding in New York was incredible that year.
We were all seated around what had been my grandmother’s dining room table. Our plates were filled out with wild rice and shrimp, black beans and chicken. A pinot noir and a Chablis were open and everyone’s glasses were filled to their specifications. I was still finishing my Presbyterian from before dinner.
“Jarv,” my mother said to my stepfather, “Would you like to say the grace?”
He bowed his head solemnly as we looked around quizzically: “Benedictus, benedictum, amen.”