Christmas tradition -- and innovation
"Tradition always incorporates innovation" insisted the daughter (an anthropologist-cum-historian) on Christmas Eve. The reason for her insistence on this great anthropological truth was her desire that this year we should try roasting rather than boiling the sprouts for Christmas dinner.
Predictably enough, we chose to follow that other anthropological model: namely, "accretion". The husband had liked our encounter with roast sprouts in the USA, but rather doubted our ability to do them well enough on our first try (and anyway, he is still quite partial to boiled ones). So -- as we had laid in well more sprouts than we needed -- we decided to roast half and boil half, just to be on the safe side. (I expect that we will now do this sprouting double act as long as we have Christmas together.)
At this point, I rather pretensiously observed that our decision followed the model of our Christmas tree... it was growing tradition, a bit like the way we put new decorations on the tree each year, without throwing away the old ones. To be precise: a rather jolly hart (above), vaguely taken from the Wilton diptych joined the line up this year, as did a shining ship (on the right, supposedly based -- though I dont think you'd know just to look at it -- on Turner's Fighting Temeraire).
Conversation, let me reassure you, doesn't usually run along these lines over our kitchen table. But it was perhaps a nice reminder of what a wonderful anthropological case study modern Christmas can be. In fact a friend of mine who taught Anthropology in Cambridge often used to ask candidates at their interviews to comment anthropologically on Christmas. She was never very impressed by those who went on about the terrible 'commercialism' of it all; she was looking for a bit of analysis of our nostalgia, and the way the celebration (for many, no matter what religion -- if any) still acts as a re-affirmation of ties of friendship, a focus of remembrance, not to mention gift exchange.
Sadly, for me, it now acts as a focus of remembrance of her. She died a few years ago, but Sue's question to her candidates (as well as her whole-hearted, exuberantly atheistic investment in all the festivities of the season) is now always part of what I think when I "think Christmas". Exactly, she would have said. For that's the way that Christmas comes to mean more, the older you get...generating and preserving an ever increasing number of things to remember. (And I'm sure that's how she used to press her interview candidates.)
But Christmas isn't just a great case study for the anthropologically inclined. Classicists get a toe-hold in there too.
That's because, somewhere lurking behind our celebrations (though, in truth, the connections are a bit hard to follow) is the Roman festival of Saturnalia -- eventually a seven day holiday at the end of December; just like our Christmas break, it got longer as time went on. There's nothing a classicist likes doing better at this time of year than sounding off about the similarities and differences between our festivities and the Romans'. (I had a go here, but I suspect you may need to subscribe to Timesonline to see it all.)
The basic point is that the Saturnalia wasn't really a match for the over-consumption of Christmas dinner. That has a Roman feel in its own way (and I bet the Romans would have loved the ritual of lighting the brandy over the Christmas pud, if only they had had some convenient matches). Much more similar are the rituals of gift-giving, games and silly hats. And even more distinctive, is the idea of role reversal. For once a year, on the Saturnalia, Roman slaves are said to have sat down to dinner, served by their masters (noone is very explicit about who actually cooked it, but I suspect the slaves...).
It was in other words, almostthe spitting image of the classic "office party", in which the Managing Director makes a gracious display of serving the wine, while trying desperately and unsuccessfully to remember the names of all the lowly staff (thus rather ruining the point). Presumably the same problems emerged in ancient Rome, with the toffs repeatedly mixing up their poor Lurcios and their Pseudolus's.
Not sure if it counts as one of the better Roman inventions.
Happy Christmas everyone!