Yesterday was the beginning of the Roman festival of Saturnalia, a solstice and festival of lights that spans from the 17th of December until the 23rd of December. Those interested are more than capable of finding information about the holiday itself. I started this writing yesterday, when it occurred, but was distracted by a nasty cold and other work. So I never got around to really writing this out.
I’m not a “religious” man. It seems strange to say, especially since this blog is focused on religious expression, but it is pure recognition of a fact of my life at the present. I don’t really partake in religious customs. I have beliefs, and I have faith. But my expression of religion is next to nothing. I have no community to celebrate religious festivals with, so they end up being days that I give a nod to and then allow to pass by. In fact, most of the local community groups are frustrating. I have a shrine where I make offerings, and I pray nightly. But that’s about it, in all honesty. I don’t have the space, currently, to have a relatively “active” practice, since fortune has me slumming off of a couch at the present.
My faith is a majority of Heathen. Jokingly, it is at least 85% Heathen, with 15% focus on Cultus Deorum Romanum. Probably even less than that, since I have a small cultic focus on Minerva and a few other Roman deities. But for whatever reason I can’t seem to bring myself to care about the few true “heathen” festivals that we have. I find myself paying more attention to Roman civic festival and what days are which for what deity and what is appropriate – insofar as being more willing to check on the Roman calendar that Cultus Deorum Romanum uses to see what is attested for which day, at least.
Sitting down to think about this, I wonder if it is because the majority of Roman religion is based on civic mindfulness and cultural duty and not simply on an agricultural passage of time. There are far fewer attested holidays within Heathenry than there are within the Roman religion. Ancient heathens did not leave much in the way of information of their practices, the sources that we have attested are from post-conversion peoples. Reliably, we can say that they “probably” followed traditional seasonal observations that other agricultural indigenous European peoples did. That is, reliably we can say some of the following were most likely observed at some time:
- May Day
- Winter Nights
Bede gives bare mention of a few things in his De Temporum Ratione when he describes the Anglo-Saxon calendar and attempting to reconcile certain problematic dates (notably Easter) between the Julian and local calendars. He doesn’t really go in depth to it. It must be remembered that Bede was a Northumbrian, so much of his influence comes from his local regions. It is a reason why I don’t believe “Eostre” was a Heathen-wide holiday, and why I’ll dispute people’s attempts at claiming that Eostre was a universal deity. I also recognize that Christians gave more emphasis on certain aspects in order to better combat them. But those are other writings.
The rest of the “Heathen Holidays” as they are penned are either appropriations of other agricultural systems or, worse in my mind, American secular holidays that are given religious emphasis. In my mind, this shows a need for “civic” cultural holidays and emphasis, even in a religious context.
What do I mean when I say that the Heathen holiday cycle is “simply an agricultural passage of time”? I mean that it is a calendar that focuses almost exclusively on agrarian themes. This is a failing that I feel the Celto-Wiccan calendar shares. The emphasis on the Equinoxes and Solstices, the emphasis on the harvest festivals, an emphasis on local and regional earth fertility all point to the needs of an agrarian society. It is understandable that traditions that develop are based on the needs of the community, and on individual needs.
Remember, I am speaking for myself in this writing. I am not a farmer. I am not an agrarian. I barely keep a garden. Growing up, my mother grew tomatoes for canning, but even when we had more than a bare acre of land it was not a focus of our family. I am several steps “removed” from the agricultural process, despite growing up in what is considered “rural-suburbia”. For better or worse if I need food I can go down to the grocery store whenever I desire it and purchase what I need.
Does this mean that agricultural and harvest festivals and holidays based on fertility have no importance? Absolutely not. Our food still needs to come from somewhere. It’s important to keep the land in mind when we’re doing what we can to ensure the survival of our peoples.
But in my experience, my involvement with these rites and holidays feels hollow. And I think it’s because I’m not “connected” to the cycle of the land as much as others are.
Now the Roman holidays? The holidays of a multicultural and cosmopolitan empire? There are holidays for everything. There had to be. There were no weekends. There was no respite from the work and toil of day to day life. Holidays of deities of civic need in addition to agricultural festivals. Holidays for the veneration of the founders of Rome, with games and athletic events, holidays and festivals for the Gods of other lands which focus on everything from love, to fertility, to civic mindfulness, victory in battle, and even the sweet smell of fresh air.
Saturnalia. Lupercalia. Minervalia. Paganalia. Festivals for praising the triumph of the Empire’s victory over other peoples. Solemn remembrances of grievous losses in the past. Effectively memorial days and days celebrating veterans. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
Rome, for all it’s cosmopolitan nature, was still based on agrarian themes, and I recognize that. Saturnalia began as an early festival honoring Saturn for the bounty of the world, as well as perpetuating a mythical “golden age” of egalitarianism. It became something more as the Republic and then Empire grew and expanded.
I wonder if I pay more attention to this calendar cycle, not because I feel that the Roman deities are “more important” than my Heathen ones. Not that I feel that the Roman calendar is “better” than a Heathen or Anglo-Saxon calendar. But because it is more familiar to my needs as someone who grew up in secular Western American culture, with no special emphasis on the cycles of the world and on the fertility of the land. I’ve not been a farmer or a horticulturalist. I really have no intention of becoming one, especially with the price of purchasing anything viable towards that end these days.
There is no competition between the two systems, of course. Polytheism is a beautiful system of pluralism. There’s nothing, theologically, stopping me from enjoying both systems of holidays. Culturally, they’re both reconstructed calendars. It is most assuredly not a problem of trying to juggle different holidays on the same day, save for a few very select cases.
But the end result is that I am more willing to pay attention, at least, to the Roman cycle of holidays than I am really to do the same thing for the Heathen calendar. Not because the Roman gods are “more important” to me, or because I’m “more Roman” than I am Heathen, but because I’m really just more familiar with the varied expression of the calendar.
And besides, I’ve already made a post about how it always seems like the beginning of the year was in March. So I guess this was always the case.
I’ll probably be thinking about this more and attempting to draft a personal holiday system for myself. Why not, right?
Thanks for reading.