Miles Kington: Why the midwinter solstice is a time to be saturnine

It's high time before Christmas that we paid a visit to the gods up in heaven and found out what they are talking about at the United Deities, the great non-stop talk shop for all divinities past and present. Of course, Christmas is not necessarily a subject of general interest to the majority of gods, but with any luck there might be something instructive in the last set of minutes of their current session...
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1. The chairgod said that the next item on the agenda concerned Christmas...

2. The Jewish God said please? He was sorry. Why? Why Christmas? What had Christmas done to get its own item on the agenda? He, the Jewish God, had no more interest in Christmas than anyone else had in a festival like Saturnalia or, for all he knew, a Jewish feast like Passover. He wanted to know why they didn't just pass over and talk about something interesting.

3. The Roman God Saturn said it was no use dismissing Saturnalia like that. He personally was very interested in Saturnalia.

4. The Jewish God said he could understand that, but he would like to know if there was in fact anything very interesting about Saturnalia that anyone who was not a god called Saturn might appreciate.

5. Saturn said that as the whole of Roman civilisation had been geared up to the celebration of it, and depended on it for hundreds of years, it might be said to be of more than passing interest. Also, possibly more interesting than any equivalent Jewish feast.

6. The chairgod said that if Saturn could confine himself to a brief plug for his festival without cross-faith point-scoring, he would be grateful.

7. Saturn agreed. He reminded everyone that although he had a reputation for having a grim side, hence the expression "Saturnine" for being disagreeable, he was in fact basically the god of agriculture, and was no more than a simple farmer.

8. Hence his disagreeable reputation, interposed Zeus, the head Greek God. Zeus gave it as his opinion that all so-called simple farmers were deep down dyed pessimists who liked nothing better than to grumble about the weather, the crops, the government and pestiferous insects.

9. Saturn said that if that were so, it did not explain how much people always looked forward to Saturnalia. It was the midwinter feast which gave everyone a chance to mark the shortest day and the return of the light, and of course to give thanks for the preceding fertile season and the bountiful work of nature.

10. Fertile season be blowed, said Jupiter, the head Roman God. As he remembered, Saturnalia gave everyone the chance to get pissed for a fortnight, and wake up next year with a tremendous sore head and not much memory of what had happened. In some ways, although he was not greatly in favour of Christianity, he was not unhappy that Saturnalia had gradually been subsumed by Christmastide, which had taken over the old Roman feast and civilised it.

11. The Jewish God said he could never make out why, whenever they discussed an old and genuine pagan feast, it always turned out eventually to have been taken over by the Christian marketing boys. Was there ever, he asked, a pagan feast which wasn't rebranded by the Christian PR department, in which case, was there ever an original Christmas festivity which wasn't copied from something else?

13. He was sick to death of all this Christian copy-catting.

14. The chairgod said he had a point, but it was probably a bit late to sue Christmas or Easter for plagiarism, and in any case Saturnalia was probably the reborn version of some old pre-Roman feast or other. Religions came and went, but the turn of the year had always been there.

15. The Christian God said he had not bothered to intervene so far, but he would like to know what exactly the chairgod meant when he said that religions came and went. For a god to speak like that seemed slightly cavalier. In his experience, religions came and stayed. Or did the chairgod know something he didn't know?

More of this tomorrow, I hope.

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