By Samuel Torvend
It’s no different this year: experts on the talk shows are giving advice on how to deal with holiday stress, Christmas stress, seasonal stress, gift-buying stress, cooking stress – the kind of stress that emerges when some people really do expect a “perfect” holiday. It seems that stress is in the air we breathe.
Now I am not denying that a holiday can induce a measure of anxiety. Indeed, some people become nervous just getting ready for a birthday party. What bugs me is the linking of “stress” to “Christmas.” And so I wonder: is it a Christian festival that is the source of so much stress or do we need to look elsewhere?
In early the fourth century, when the celebration of Christ’s birth first emerged, Roman citizens celebrated a winter feast called the Saturnalia in honor of the god Saturn. While originally a one-day holiday, the feast became so popular that it was extended to a week, from December 17-24. Gifts were exchanged among the wealthy, and parties – with much food and much wine – were held throughout the city. Household slaves were given time off to join the revelry, a week of drunkenness and public debauchery. Houses were decorated with winter greens while burning torches and lamps could be seen everywhere – a tangible protest against the increasing darkness, as if the people were begging the light to return at the darkest and coldest time of the year.
Well, now: does any of this ring a bell? You see, I think the Saturnalia is wildly alive in American culture and in American lives. But since the late 19th century, our Saturnalia has been suffused with an incredible pressure … to buy, even if the credit card is maxed out … and feel happy, even if there is no apparent reason for such a feeling. No wonder people feel stress. No wonder some churches celebrate a “blue” Christmas in which people gather to grieve and mourn. From mid-November until Christmas Eve, the ancient Roman Saturnalia is in full swing throughout the land.
Don’t get me wrong: I eagerly look forward to this time of year, to the lights, the trees, the foods. It’s just that I prefer to celebrate Christmas rather than the Saturnalia. Indeed, when Christmas first emerged in ancient Rome, early Christian leaders guided their communities to give gifts, not to each other, but to the most vulnerable people in the city, to the poor and the homeless. They prepared lavish meals, tables groaning with food and drink, not for themselves but for the hungry and the destitute: “What you have been given at the table of the Lord – rich bread and fine wine – now give to those in need in the city,” they counseled. Their churches were filled with burning torches and huge candles, not as protests against the dark, but as living signs of God’s own burning light, God’s merciful presence shining in the most unlikely form: a vulnerable child born into poverty.
For me, the simple truth at the heart of the feast is this: where loving care for the most vulnerable takes place, where people of good-will share of their substance with those in need, where infants and children are fed, clothed, and sheltered - there is genuine comfort and joy; anxiety diminishes; the stress that accompanies the search for food, health, and community begins to dissipate. This is a deeply Christian conviction: the festival is not about me but about God with us in a world of great need. There is, truly and deeply, every chance that a season of stress can become a season of great peace.
Samuel Torvend is a member of St. Paul's and professor of the history of Christianity at Pacific Lutheran University.