It was the Romans who first started the custom of exchanging gifts at the end of the year. This happened during the annual festival commemorating the god Saturn.
This deity had a very ambivalent character for the Romans, at once the deity symbolising sowing and the hope for the harvest to come but also dissolution and the passing of time. Saturn was representative of a philosophy where birth and death, rather than being antithetical, were perceived to be generative of each other in a cyclical way.
With the adoption of Christianity, the Roman world traded Saturn for Christ but it didn’t do away with the pagan philosophy at its core; it largely dressed it up in Christian clothing.
During the Middle Ages, the 12 days of Christmas were an occasion to rejoice at the birth of the Christ, born to die and through His death redeem and give new birth to mankind. It was also an occasion to mark the passing of time and, with the beginning of a new year, to express hope for a good year ahead. Gifts were also exchanged at this time of the year and such customs as new year’s resolutions came to be.
The medieval cyclical understanding of life is still emblematically represented in the novel Gargantua and Pentagruel written by the French satirist Francois Rabelais in 1532, who opened his book with a detailed description of how Pentagruel’s birth was the cause for his mother’s death.
During the Enlightenment, the Illuminists struggled hard to do away with this understanding of life, ironically – for a largely non-denominational philosophical movement – by promoting a more Christian ideology that history (or any individual’s life, for that matter) is a long continuum towards its sublimation (equivalent to what in Christian doctrine would be the Last Judgement).
It was a success of sorts for the Illuminists, for the Romantics during the 19th century, inspired as they were by the Gothic remnants of the Middle Ages, were only too keen to readopt the idea that life and history in general move in cycles.
Perhaps no other more than Friedrich Nietzsche has contributed to the popularisation of the concept among his contemporaries and, even if perhaps the concept might be vehemently challenged by some of today’s philosophers and historians, it remains a powerful idea perhaps unconsciously ingrained in the way we interpret life.
Nietzsche was drawn towards the cyclical perception of history (whether it’s our own or of humankind in general) through his observations of human behaviour. If there’s one lesson history has taught us, it is that it’s a very bad teacher. Human beings keep repeating their erratic behaviour even though they should know better, if only they choose to look at the past as a source of knowledge.
Humans seem to be drawn towards destruction and death. They are greedy for power and possessions. They follow hollow ideals and are intolerant of what’s different and doesn’t conform to their expectations.
Hope makes life worth a try, keeps us from succumbing, from letting go
They ignore death, which is the great leveller, because the knowledge of death would expose how shallow and fickle are all human ambitions, how useless are all excesses of possessions and wealth, how fleeting is time and, thus, how valuable.
And because they ignore death, they also ignore life, because (Nietzsche reminds us) only the awareness of death will make us appreciate life. And it is only when we truly understand the value of life that we begin to lust for it and direct our action to make living a celebration of life itself.
That is why it is mostly in times of despair that humankind often shows its best qualities, its heroism and compassion, its fortitude and solidarity. As with Pentagruel’s mother, it is in death that new life is born.
What makes us get back to our feet when we fall, what keeps us going when faced with evil and destruction, what brings life amongst the ruins of death is hope.
That was the big lesson the Romans in their wisdom wanted to impart during the festival to honour Saturn. It wasn’t because they were naive or because they were foolishly optimistic but because they were keen observers of life. They had experience of war, of bad harvests, of illness and they lived their lives facing the same trials and tribulations that we face in our day and age. They knew what kept them going; they knew that it was upon the ashes of Rome that a new Rome would arise.
It was because of this understanding of life and living that they saw life and death as generative and not antithetical to each other.
Their insight was so spot on that when a new religion took over, the birth of child in a manger inherited the same power upon the imagination to fill hearts with hope. Even today, when religion has lost its redeeming power amongst many, these festive days retain that same power to impart a message of hope.
Not because we are naive or foolishly optimistic: we know that hope won’t stop the wars or the famines or the greed or the injustices of the world; we know that hope won’t heal the sick or bring back the lost ones or alleviate loneliness or overcome bullying. All this we know but, yet, we still hope and hope makes life worth a try, keeps us from succumbing, from letting go.
So whether in honour of Saturn, or of Jesus Christ, or because of medieval or Nietzschean inspiration, it is good and human to celebrate, to exchange gifts, to keep hope alive.
A happy new year to all.