Saturnalibus, optimo dierum!


December 17th is the Roman feast of Saturn, the Saturnalia.  Over the years it expanded to become an entire week of festivities.

During Saturnalia all the conventions of Rome were thrown aside.  It was the Roman Version of the Dionysian Mysteries.  But the Roman festival seems to have been far earthier, and a lot more fun.

Masters became the servants.  Women acted like men.  Rules around what you could eat or drink or how to behave were thrown away.  Chaos and fun were the order of the day.

From Saturnalia we get one of our most enduring Christmas traditions, the Pantomime.  The male hero is played by a woman.  Dames are played by men.  Farce and comedy are feted in place of po-faced theatre.  There are no seats for litterati at the panto.  It is owned by children, small ones and big ones.

It is a tried and true formula.  The good guys always triumph, the guy gets the girl and there are no nasty surprises.  “He’s behind you!”

Audience participation is de-rigeur.

Oh no, it isn’t…..


The Pantomime – A Humorous Poem -by Blackangelwings

I’ll boo if I want to
I’ll jump up and down
I’ll hiss at the Stepmother
And laugh at her crown.

I’ll be the first to scream
When a cow is sold for beans
I’ll tremble at the Giant’s voice
When Jack escapes, I will rejoice.

I’ll scramble for sweets
That Seven Dwarfs throw
I won’t push over children
It’s rather naughty I know.

As children to the woods are banished
My inhibitions tend to vanish
As a glass slipper is forced on willing toes
I’ll shout ‘She’s behind you’ wherever the Evil Dame goes.

I won’t give a care
When adults turn to stare
I’ll laugh at the old gags, they’re always the same
I’ll be jolly and excited, so very glad I came.

Maybe I’ll stay in my seat
If the interval provides a fluorescent treat
A glowing wand this year
As previous swords made me reckless, I fear.

I won’t whistle at the Principle Boy
You told me Santa would take back a toy
I’ll cheer as a Prince so brave
Breaks the curse of a glass coffin grave.

When Witches appear I’ll roar out a boo
I promise not to swear or turn the air blue
As Ugly Sisters pull up their chests
I’ll just giggle and won’t be a pest.

I’ll journey on a carpet somewhere nice
I won’t heckle the Genie or give my advice
I may weep a bucket full of tears
As into Snow White’s mouth a poisoned apple disappears.

This Pantomime time
I won’t commit the crime
Of running down the aisle
Two steps at a time.

I won’t even jump on the stage this year
I’ve heard of Health and Safety fears
I must admit though, I’ll miss all the attention
It’s far more fun than collecting my pension!


Happy Hallowe’en.


Today is Hallowe’en.  This is one of the few failed cases of a pagan festival being hijacked by the Catholic Church.  The word “Catholic” means “all encompassing”.  If you have catholic tastes in reading it means you will read anything.  The Catholic church “encompassed” elements of pagan religions, and overlaid the pagan holidays and high-days with a similar Christian rite.  Mid-winter solstice became Christmas – the birth of the Christ.  Beltaine/ Oester, the spring fertility festivals, became Easter, birth replaced by re-birth.   Imbolc became St Brigets day, replacing a Celtic goddess with a Christian saint.

Samhain was the biggest of the Celtic Cross-Quarter days.  The Celts celebrated 8 significant dates – the Solstices, the Equinoxes, and the 4 cross-quarter days that lie between (Imbolc, Beltaine, Lughnasa & Samhain).  There were three harvest festivals in the Celtic calendar.

Lughnasa (the grain harvest) is a cross-quarter day, and traditionally bonfire night – now celebrated as St Johns Night in many rural areas.

Fomhair is the harvest of fruits and nuts, and aligns with the autumn equinox.

Samhain is the blood harvest.  The Celtic farmers had to choose the animals that would overwinter and be fed.  The other animals had to be slaughtered and the meat preserved.  Any meat that could not be preserved would be feasted upon as fresh meat.  So it was a huge celebration of eating.  People who were too poor to eat meat at any other time of year were bound to get something.

Because of the number of animals slaughtered villages were awash with blood and guts.  Hence the link between hallowe’en and things bloody like vampires, zombies or werewolves.  The Celts believed that so much blood attracted the souls of the dead, and this was a time when the boundary between life and death was thin.  You could commune with the dead.  Hence the association of Hallowe’en with Ghosts and Ghouls.

Finally, in the Celtic Pagan Calendar, this was the celebration of the New Year, the biggest feast day of the year.  They marked the year end by the success of the harvest, at a time of plenty and excess.  To this day children celebrate Hallowe’en by eating as much as they can possibly eat, of all the things they really love.  It is a day when adults step back and permit kids to eat all the “bad stuff”.

The Christians tried to take over Hallowe’en by tying into the element associated with the dead, and created “all hallows eve”, the night before the celebration of “all souls day”.  But they failed miserably.  The Samhain festival was too multi-layered for the Christians to subsume.  All they managed to claim was the name itself.

Puritans in England were more successful.  They cracked down on all pagan style dancing and drinking and celebrating in the 17th century.  When Guy Fawkes tried to blow up Parliament in 1605 in the Gunpowder Plot, he became a perfect distraction from Samhain.  The puritans converted the pagan feast into a bonfire immolation of effigies of the Catholic plotter.  They harnessed public outrage to kill off Hallowe’en and replace it with “Bonfire Night”.  Only in recent years is Hallowe’en making a comeback in England.

Mass immigration of Irish and Scottish to the USA in the 19th century brought the festival to the new world.  There it was commercialised, re-branded and sold back to Europe as an American holiday.

Here I give you a poem that gives a flavour of the dualism of Irish belief, a heady mix of the pagan and the Christian, with a strong fixation on ownership of land and kine.

The Banshee; by Alice Guerin Crist

As we came down the old boreen,
Rose and I – Rose and I,
At vesper time on Sunday e’en,
We heard a banshee cry!
Beyond the churchyard dim and dark,
‘Neath whispering elms, and yew-trees stark,
Where our star shone-a corpse-like spark-
Against the wintry sky.

We heard and shuddered sick with dread,
Rose and I- Rose and I,
As the shrill keening rang o’erhead
Where cloud-wrack floated high.
Our two young hearts long, sorely tried,
By poverty and love denied
Still waiting for some favouring tide,
And now! Death come so nigh.

‘Which of us two is called away
You or I-You or I?”
I heard my patient poor love say,
With bitter plaintive sigh.
‘Neither, dear girl,” I bravely said,
‘To Mary Mother bow your head,
And cry for help to Her instead,
Nor heed the Banshee’s cry’.

We raised our hearts in fervent prayer,
Rose and I-Rose and I,
Nor knew our troubles ended there,
Our happiness came nigh.
For ‘twas the grim old farmer, he-
My only kin, rich, miserly,
Who, dying left his wealth to me-
For whom the banshee cried.