Thursday, December 18, 2008

Saturnalia

One of my favorite albums of 2008 was Saturnalia (Gutter Twins), and I’ve probably listened to it a million and one times, but never once did it even cross my mind to find out what the word Saturnalia actually means. Things would have progressed as normal – me lost in complete obliviousness – if only I hadn’t a guilty pleasure for bad TV.

It was this past week after a 10-hour work day, followed by a horrible experience returning some clothing and the utterly annoying purgatory that was my tights inching down with each step I took – no place to duck into to right my crotch from my knees and my waistband (usually under my boobs) from the underneath of my ass – when I entered my house with the force of a tornado, tore off my boots and tights, immediately dug into the take-out I had brought home, and began watching The Big Bang Theory, where the guy who was NOT Darlene-from-Roseanne’s-geeky-boyfriend, David, explained in part what Saturnalia is: a winter festival during which people took in branches from evergreen trees as a symbol of their “protecting life” during the winter, and in the spring when plants started to grow again the branches would be removed from people’s homes (Longest. Sentence. Ever.). This tradition was the beginning of what would become the Christmas tree. I felt like a retard.

There I sat, looking at the slender, white, plastic Christmas tree that sits beside my television, wondering what it is that makes tradition itself and why tradition feels so good.

Quite obviously one of the traditions I hold onto is putting up a Christmas tree, even though my only reference for having a Christmas tree prior to this week was that it’s a thing on which to hang old shit I either made or have had since before I can remember, and it’s the place you put presents unless you’re Jewish. I had no clue the history of the Christmas tree, and after I heard it, “Boy!” I thought, “I’ve truly bastardized the meaning of this!”

Always the good little consumer, another tradition I hold near and dear is spending a lot of money on presents. That’s not a tradition, you say. Well, then, why am I so “not in the Christmas spirit” this year after I decided not to exchange presents with anyone? I like to buy shit. I not only take pleasure in it, but I suspect I may have a bit of a problem, and not in a joking “I have 100 pairs of shoes and like to shop till I drop” kind of way either – in the kind of way where I kind of feel high after I’ve made a large purchase or bought a lot of stuff.

So, there it is: my tradition. Hanging old shit on an effigy of a fake living thing while I light hundred-dollar bills underneath it. I follow this tradition because I enjoy following it, but does it actually have any real meaning?

I think it’s fair to say that I was brought up mighty white as a kid, and the baby Jesus – the true meaning of Christmas – was crammed down my throat. Having the unique perspective I have today, I feel that even that tradition isn’t quite as “traditional” as some people may have us believe, and I don’t just mean in the “is Christ just a metaphor for love?” kind of way either. I mean, I heard on the news this week that someone actually researched the date of the “first Christmas” and found out that when Jesus was born it was the middle of summer in the friggin desert! Wouldn’t it then be more festive to wear Hawaiian shirts and hang our damp sweat-rags up to dry? Well, that doesn’t feel very much like Christmas, now does it?!

My tradition is meaningful. It may not connect me to the accurate historical context of the “things” I use in my traditions, but those “things” hold meaning to me that’s not associated with history or even any particular holiday – they hold memories.

For hours on end I’d lie on my back underneath the Christmas tree, unfocusing my eyes so that all the tiny lights became fuzzy bright blurs, patterns of color – a cluster of reds speckled with green and blue. And when I refocused my eyes, I’d stare at my upside-down reflection in the low-hanging red and silver balls – my big-nosed image warped by the round surface of the ornaments. Focus, unfocus, focus, unfocus, while listening to the sound of timbers popping and crackling in the fireplace – sometimes loud enough to break my trance and make me jump.

Maybe it isn’t the lack of the usually gregarious pile of presents under my tree that’s ruining my Christmas spirit this year – maybe it’s my not allowing myself the time to stop, think, and lie on my back underneath the Christmas tree to do nothing more than focus and unfocus and experience the sounds and smells that enter my consciousness. I need to take hold of that little bit of life that's left out there in the cold and bring it inside. If I protect it, it will only blossom as time goes on, just like the evergreen branches that the Romans protected during Saturnalia. Hmmm, maybe we're not so different after all.

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