Sunday, December 17, 2017

For a Good Time Call Saturnalia the Roman Solstice Romp

Saternalia--everyone is having a great time in Italian sculptor Ernesto Biondo's 1900 monument.


Saturnalia was the Roman feast of Saturn, the god of Harvest, a dies festus, a legal holiday when no public business could be conducted.  It was first celebrated on this date—accounting for a couple of changes of calendars—in 496 BC.  At various points during the Republic and Empire festivities extended over seven, three, and finally five days.
For a long time, all I knew about Saturnalia was that when I was in Cheyenne East High School the Latin Club nerds plastered the school with posters reading Io Saturnalia! Which roughly translated to “way to go, big fella!” or something.  They also had a slave auction fundraiser in the lunch room where leering gym teachers bought the comeliest girls and likeliest boys draped in their mothers’ bed sheets.  Kind of creepy, when you think about it.
But as a student of all things religious, I have since learned a thing or two about it.
As gods go Saturn could be a mean dude as depicted in this 1637 portrait by Peter Paul Rubens.
Saturnalia is just one of the many festivals common in Europe and elsewhere in the Northern Hemisphere around the period of the solstice.  Unlike others, it is a harvest festival, which seems strange until you remember that Rome not only had a pleasant Mediterranean climate but was in a period of historic warming prior the Little Ice Age, the onset of which helped plunge the continent into the Dark Ages.  But that’s another story.
The public ritual of the holiday was observed at the Temple of Saturn, one of the most important buildings in the Forum.  A lectisternium, a ceremonial couch, was set up before the Temple and the statue of Saturn was unbound—The rest of the year he was tied up because of his unfortunate habit of eating people.  He was depicted as a semi-depraved old man caring a harvesting scythe.  Christians would later adapt that image to the Father Time image associated with the celebration of the New Year.   A feast was laid out for the god before the couch so that he wouldn’t get hungry and revert to his nasty cannibalism.

In time the festival incorporated many of the aspects of the Greek festival of Dionysus or Baccus as he was known in Rome.
The public ritual and spectacle aside what made Saturnalia especially popular with Roman plebeians and the large population of slaves were the carnival-like traditions.  Customs from the earlier Greek festival of Dionysus—Bacchus—were incorporated into the celebrations.
 Social norms of the rest of the year were set aside.  Private parties and public revelry were the order of the day.  Restrictions on gambling were loosened and even slaves could try their luck at games, many trying to win enough money to buy their freedom.   Exchanging small gifts—saturnalia et sigillaricia—either made by hand or purchased at special holiday markets was a highlight.  Slaves were exempted from punishment by their masters, in theory at least.

Gambling is an important part of the revelry and slaves were allowed to participate.  For them the stakes could be very high indeed--many hoped to win the small fortunes needed to buy their freedom.  This common dice game was depicted on the walls of a wealthy villa in Pompeii.
The most telling was the turn-about feature of the celebration.  Slaves and common laborers were supposed to be served feasts by their masters and were free to express disrespect.  Sometimes complete role reversal was practiced.
With the rules of public decorum suspended, it was a very good time for wine merchants and public drunkenness was common.  So were sexual hi-jinks, including usually forbidden mixing among classes, master and slave.

After 250 AD Saturnalia was subsumed into the new Festival of Sttol Invictus decreed by Emperor Aurelian in celebrations of a Sun clut.  The return of the sun on December 25 was a high point of the multi day rcelebration.  Although the original Saturnalia ended before that date a confusion about the two Roman holidays led to the popular misconception that the early Church "stole" December 25 for it celebration of the birth of Christ.
Around 250 AD Emperor Aurelian created the new official cult of Sol Invictus, a Sun deity which may have borrowed from the Persian warrior cult of Mithra, which celebrated the return of the Sun on December 25, just after the conclusion of Saturnalia.
This led to the often told tale is that the early Christians, still persecuted, hid their celebration of the Feast of the Nativity during Saturnalia to avoid detection.  The trouble was that the date for that celebration was not yet fixed.  In fact it was often celebrated in the Spring—the lambing season when shepherds would have been in the fields on the lookout for wolves. Even when Christmas was settled on December 25, it was two days after the customary end of Saturnalia but did coincide with the feast of Sol Invictus.  However later Emperors began to suppress the Sun festival with the rise of Christianity, around 390 AD.  The first written reference to a festival of Natalis Invicti was the Philocalian calendar of  354.  But a spring celebration of the nativity persisted more generally for another 100 years by which time the festival of Sol Invictus was banned and reduced to a rural folk celebration.   
The early church did seem to want to mount a feast or festival that competed with the various pagan solstice festivals and to which locals could adapt some of their beloved customs.  At the same time, the Church went through periods of vigorously trying to stamp out vestiges of those same pagan festivals.  For this reason the exchange of gifts was outlawed through much of the early Middle Ages.
But customs did persist.  Although most of the trapping of Christmas were borrowed from the Nordic Yule, Celtic, and Druidic customs, the cultural influence of Rome’s long occupation of Britain can be seen in the carnival like observation of Christmas there up to the Puritan era   which included the same role-reversals, public revelry, and drinking.  The vestiges of it can be seen in Boxing Day, when masters give presents to servants and often serve them meals on the day after Christmas.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Rudolph the Alienated Adolescent Saves Christmas, Thank You

In the Rankin/Bass stop action animation version of Rudolph the Rednosed Reindeer, there was double the adolescent angst and rejection as the little reindeer aquired a young elf pal.


The Rankin/Bass stop action animation TV special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer which first aired on CBS Television in 1964 was just the latest iteration of what then seemed almost like a timeless holiday folk tale.  And it would not be the last.  Rudolph has had more lives than any cat.
Versions of the show have been aired annually ever since making it the longest  running Christmas TV special in history.
Rudolph first saw light as commercial come-on.  One that proved so wildly popular that he took on a life of his own.
Robert L. May was the son of wealthy secular Jewish family from New Rochelle, New York.  He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Dartmouth College in 1926.  But his family’s wealth were wiped out in the Depression.  In 1939 he was toiling as a low-paid in-house advertising copywriter at Montgomery Ward headquarters in Chicago.  
Robert L. May reads his story to his daughter Barabra.  Both were mourning the death of his wife by cancer while he was working on the project.
The stores had been buying and giving away cheap coloring books as give away promotions every year at Christmas.  But that year someone figured the company could save money if they produced their own in house.  May was handed the assignment. When May decided to do a narrative poem about an outcast reindeer based on his own childhood as an awkward misfit the project took on a special significance for him. 
His wife was dying of cancer.  He read his early drafts to her and his four year old daughter Barbara. Evelyn May died in July as he was still at work on the project.  He was so grief stricken that his bosses offered to let him give up the project.  May refused, determined to complete it.  In August he read the final version to Barbara and his wife’s parents.
Store officials were at first taken aback by the product.  They had expected a simple, cheery book featuring some sort of cute animal.  What they got was a little morality tale in verse, in in anapestic tetrameter in case you are interested.  But it was too late to get anything else so they sent it to the art department for illustration and ordered copies of a thin magazine-like booklet in a bright red cover.
The first edition of the Montgomery Ward give-away books.
It turned out they didn’t order enough.  From the moment the book hit he stores it was a huge success.  Printing presses had to run day and night to keep up with demand.  In that first year 2.4 million copies were distributed.  Shoppers who had never set foot in a Wards store were attracted by word of mouth.  They stayed.  They bought.  The chain had its best holiday sales in years.  The booklet was re-issued for the next two years and the appeal hardly diminished.
War time paper rationing suspended distribution for the duration.  But in 1946 pent-up demand was so great that 3.6 million copies were distributed.  Children all over the country were interrupting readings by their parents of The Night Before Christmas to demand to know where Rudolph was.
Such success was bound to draw other commercial offers.  But May was unable to do anything because Montgomery Ward owned the copyright.  In 1947 Ward’s boss—the notoriously flinty Sewell Avery most famous for being physically carried out of his office by National Guard troops during World War II for defying the National War Labor Board’s order to recognize a union for his employees—uncharacteristically gave May ownership of the copyright to the poem and character free and clear.
A spoken word recording of the poem was made in 1947 and became a hit.  Several big name commercial publishing houses had passed on a hardcover edition of the book believing that all of the free copies had saturated the market.  Maxton Publishers, a small New York publishing company, took a chance and put out an updated print edition in time for Christmas that year.  It became the bestselling children’s book of the year and would remain in print for decades.
Rudolph in his 1948 Max Fleischer cartoon redefined the story for post-war children.
In 1948 animation pioneer Max Fleischer made a theatrical cartoon short of the poem, one of his last original productions.  Despite being made by a minor studio without a good distribution deal, exhibitor demand brought it to screens across the country.  It would subsequently be shown on television.
May was always convinced his hero needed a theme song.  He turned to his brother-in-law, pop composer Johnny Marks then best known for the song Happy New Year Darling co-written with Guy Lombardo’s brother Carmine and a handful of novelty numbers.   Marks did not just set the original poem to music—it was too long and complicated.  Instead he pared down and re-told the story in the 3 minute format of the popular song and set it to a bouncy, catchy tune easy for a child to remember and sing along with. Despite the commercial success of the other Rudolph ventures May and Marks had a hard time peddling the tune.  They first took it to Bing Crosby, the reigning king of holiday music but Der Bingle was not interested in a kiddy ditty.  A disappointing parade of other big names also rejected it.  Finally, Gene Autry agreed to do it.

May's brother in law Johnny Marks launched a career as a holiday and children's music composer with the song made a hit by Gene Autry in 1949.
Autry was then at a low point in his career.  After the death of his idol Jimmy Rodgers he had become the biggest hillbilly/country singer in the U.S. during the early 30’s and then established himself as the greatest of the movie singing cowboys.  His records sold millions and he had success on radio.  But after he returned from World War II service as a pilot in the Army Air Force flying cargo Over the Hump in the China/Burma Theater, he found himself eclipsed at Republic Pictures by the younger and handsomer Roy Rogers, the new King of the Cowboys.  His record sales were also off although his radio show Melody Ranch was still popular.
The song was successful beyond anyone’s imagination on its release just before Christmas, 1949.  It soared to No. 1 on the Billboard pop singles chart the week of Christmas and sold 2.5 million copies the first year, eventually selling a total of 25 million copies.  It was the second best-selling record of all time until the 1980s and still just trails Crosby’s White Christmas in all time sales of holiday records.  Crosby himself saw the light and recorded it in 1950 and scored a hit with it.  Many artists have followed.  But the version you are likely to hear on your car radio or piped into crowded shopping malls is likely to feature Autry’s familiar twang.
The song did boost Autry’s career.  He followed up with a string of Christmas, holiday, and children’s records that were snapped up by a new young audience including Frosty the Snowman, his own composition Here Comes Santa Claus,Teddy Bears’ Picnic, and Here Comes Peter Cotton Tail. 
It was a life changer for Marks as well who founded St. Nicholas Music, a publisher, in 1949 and dedicated the rest of his career to composing Christmas music.  His contributions include haltingly beautiful, heartbreaking setting for Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day, and rock and roll seasonal standards Run Run Rudolph for Chuck Berry and Brenda Lee’s Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.  He was commissioned by Rankin/Bass to compose and arrange the songs for the 1964 TV special.  That one show produced three more modern Christmas classics—A Holly Jolly Christmas and Silver and Gold, both popularized by Burl Ives who played the snowman/narrator of the show, and The Most Wonderful Time of the Year, a huge hit for Andy Williams.  May also composed music for other holiday specials.  He joins the likes of Irving Berlin, Mel Torme, and Sammy Cahn as a Jewish writers of classic Christmas popular songs.
It seemed like almost every American child of the late '50's had a copy of the Little Golden Book illustrated by Richard Scarry.  It was not a reprint of May's original poem, but based loosely on the Max Fleischer cartoon.
Rudolph has had many incarnations.  Many baby boomers will fondly recall the 1956 Little Golden Book.  A lot of folks think it was May’s original book, but it was a re-telling by Barbara Shook Hazen and illustrated by Richard Scarry which closely followed the version in Max Fleischer’s cartoon.  DC Comics also issued Rudolph comic books every December from 1952 to 1962 with new stories every year.
There was a sequel to the ’64 animated special, Rudolph’s Shiny New Year, and other spin-offs.
 In 1998 Good Times Entertainment released an entirely new treatment of the story in the animated film Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: The Movie with an all star vocal cast.  But the film veered to far from either the original or the Rankin/Bass version that generations had grown up to believe was canonical that it failed miserably in theatrical release.  It recouped in home video sales however, and was followed up by a GSI computer animated film that licensed the Rankin/Bass characters.
Cultural references in other books, movies, and songs are too numerous to mention.
After all these years, everybody still loves the little reindeer with the glowing proboscis. 



Friday, December 15, 2017

Disputed Artifact Found in Congress’s Sock Drawer



On December 15, 1791 the Virginia House of Delegates ratified the Bill of Rights officially adding the first ten amendments to the Constitution and completing the political deal that led to the adoption of Constitution despite deep suspicion and resistance in many states.  It was both symbolic and fitting that Virginia, home to James Madison, the acknowledged Father of the Constitution and its eloquent defender with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay in the Federalist Papers as well the new system of government’s most bitter critics led by Virginians George Mason and Patrick Henry.
James Madison,  Father of the Consitution
Madison and proponents of a more effective government than the feeble Articles of Confederation provided had managed to win over at least some of the Anti-Federalists by promising the immediate adoption of protections to civil and state’s rights which had not been enumerated in the original document.  Thus the Bill of Rights.

Patrick Henry, Leading Anti-Federalist.
One of Virginia’s two most important political figure—General George Washington who everyone expected would be the first President under the new Constitution—was known to be a strong supporter both of the Constitution and of the additional document that made it politically palatable.  The other, Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and former Revolutionary Governor, was serving as Minister to France and ad not publicly participated in the debate.  On one hand, he shared the Anti-Federalist’s deep distrust of a possibly tyrannical government but on the other loathed his old political foe Patrick Henry and trusted his closest political protégée, Madison.  The Bill of Rights did much to assuage any qualms he might have by enshrining protections of religious freedom and of speech and the press so close to his heart into the nation’s foundational document.
Back in 2011 for the 220th anniversary of the adoption of the Bill of Rights, I celebrated with a version of this tongue-in-cheek post.  I have modified it modestly to fit current conditions.

The Congressional sock drawer where the mysterious document was accidently discovered.
A befuddled Republican Congress this week discovered a strange document while sorting mismatched socks.  In the drawer under the Argyles, tube sox, over-the-calf dress hose, smelly gym socks, and some that apparently were used for, well, cleaning up “nocturnal emissions” they discovered a tattered page on yellowing parchment with faded ink

Funny, the last time Congress looked the liner was the Wall Street Journal page of insider stock tips with a bullet.

Considering an investigation of how the scrap got in the drawer, Congress showed the paper to alleged experts.  Someone with a photographic memory recognized it as something called The Bill of Rights, which evidently had something to do with another document called the ConstitutionLegend has it that it was adopted after Virginia approved it on December 15, 1791. Congress, however, has its doubts. 
Mysteriously, one section of the document seemed to echo holy words previously ascribed to Founder Moses.
The words scribbled on the page in high falutin’ script were unfamiliar except one bullet point that seemed to echo a holy commandment handed thought to be handed down by Founding Father Moses on an extra tablet.  The rest seemed horrifically dangerous and might be Communist.

Trying to keep the document from becoming public, Congress hid it under the bed with the collection of vintage Playboy magazines.

Unfortunately, a perverted housekeeper found the document and leaked a copy to the press.  Most of the main stream media would not touch such an inflammatory document.  

Word circulated mostly in the alternative media, subversive websites, and on social media. President Donald Trump was asked about it at a campaign-like appearance before the questioner was tackled and beaten while the crowd chantedlynch him, lynch him.”  Trump did say that the document was just the “ravings of losers” and launched on a five minute mocking attack on one of the alleged authors, Little Jemmey Madison, for being a pygmy runt.

As a public service we in the blog-o-sphere have a responsibility to put it out the controversial and disputed text so you can decide for yourselves on its authenticity and/or relevance.  With some trepidation Heretic, Rebel, a Thing to Flout presents the text here. 

If you do not hear from us again within 24 hours please notify Amnesty International.

The Preamble to the Bill of Rights

Congress of the United States begun and held at the City of New-York, on Wednesday the fourth of March, one thousand seven hundred and eighty nine.
THE Conventions of a number of the States, having at the time of their adopting the Constitution, expressed a desire, in order to prevent misconstruction or abuse of its powers, that further declaratory and restrictive clauses should be added: And as extending the ground of public confidence in the Government, will best ensure the beneficent ends of its institution.
RESOLVED by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America, in Congress assembled, two thirds of both Houses concurring, that the following Articles be proposed to the Legislatures of the several States, as amendments to the Constitution of the United States, all, or any of which Articles, when ratified by three fourths of the said Legislatures, to be valid to all intents and purposes, as part of the said Constitution; viz.
ARTICLES in addition to, and Amendment of the Constitution of the United States of America, proposed by Congress, and ratified by the Legislatures of the several States, pursuant to the fifth Article of the original Constitution.
Amendment I

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Amendment II

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

Amendment III

No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.

Amendment IV

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Amendment V

No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

Amendment VI

In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.

Amendment VII

In Suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise re-examined in any Court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.

Amendment VIII

Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.

Amendment IX

The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

Amendment X

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.