Being away from London for most of December only postponed the inevitable necessity of participating, for a single day, in the consumerist feeding frenzy that has come to define Christmas in London. And yes, it was deranged. My daughter and I chose a Chinese restaurant for brief respite from the midwinter madness, only to be encircled by several instances of the office Christmas lunch. Our despondency passed quickly as we became caught up in a game of Guess the Boss and Figure out the Office Politics; the latter involves identifying who is the ambitious rising-star (always watches the Boss from the corner of his eye, waiting for an opportunity to laugh uproariously at her jokes), and the embittered man passed over repeatedly for promotion (hint: watch the alcohol consumption).
Our frenzied midwinter celebrations are nothing new of course. They predate Christianity’s co-option of pagan celebrations to mark the birth of baby Jesus, not that the latter has much to do with most people’s Christmas carousing. These days, our midwinter celebration is more about catching up with friends and family, excessive alcohol and food consumption, kitsch decorations, bright lights, and music, characteristics that would have mostly familiar to an Ancient Rome’s midwinter Saturnalia, which began at least two hundred years before the birth of Jesus.
Ostensibly a sacrifice was made to Saturn, but for most Romans Saturnalia meant it was party time. No work was carried out during the festival, friends called on each other at home, and participated in rowdy street parties. People hung decorations and exchanged small gifts. A Greek scholar of Roman culture, Lucian of Samosota, wrote of Saturnalia, “Let every man be treated equal, slave and freeman, poor and rich,” and counselled that, “no one may be ill-tempered or cross or threaten anybody.” Lucian’s dialogue also captured the spirit of any half decent Christmas party: “[..] one man to shout out something disgraceful about himself, another to dance naked, pick up the flute-girl, and carry her three times around the house,” possibly the highpoint of some of those lunches we witnessed today.