It is told in the old tales of a god who came to rule the land for a time. He arrived from places unknown, not with glory but instead as a fugitive. Instead of taking out his mysterious frustrations on the people through oppression, he gathered them together, binding them in perfect peace and unity and equality, and presided over the most prosperous Golden Age of which the tales have any knowledge. His wife Rhea was a goddess in her own right, and she embodied spiritually the wealthy, lusty bounty of the earth, and all the people loved her as much as they loved him. But he had another wife, who was also a goddess, and who represented the opposite side of nature, her merciless death and cyclical destruction. The people may not have loved her, but they only slightly ever understood that which she signified. It was not until after it was far too late that the people realized her husband and their beloved king was Father Time. As Time is wont to do, he had moved along before they had ever noticed a thing, and the Golden Age was forever lost to the dust of the past.
The old tales speak of the Roman god Saturn, based on the earlier Greek Cronus and known as the father of Zeus – and not just tales, of course, but customs. His associations with abundance, for example, led to the custom of housing the state treasury within the temples that ultimately bore his name. And, of course, the wild and awesome festival of Saturnalia, in full riotous swing at this exact time each year, was held in his honor.
But was it really about him?
There were universally attended sacrifices in his name, and other such things we can’t (perhaps for good reason) understand today. But in those times, statues of Saturn had the bottoms draped for the entire year in a type of wool blanket. Upon commencement of Saturnalia, and for the duration of the feast, which led up to the Solstice, the wool shrouds would be ceremonially removed. This signified liberation–but whose? Surely, a god is hardly in need of being liberated. No, it was the liberation of the people that was being celebrated.
It was a festival of temporary egalitarianism, when everyone wore the same hat, both literally and figuratively. It was a time to gamble, because you’re not supposed to gamble and it’s tons of fun. It was a time for everyone to overeat and overdrink, because you’re not really supposed to do that, either, and it’s also awesome, and what better way to celebrate? It was a time to give each other modest little traditional gifts, because what better way to experience intimate unity than through collective giving? And how all the servants and slaves must have looked forward to this great feast each year, as the only days on the calendar when they would be seated at the master’s table and served by the master himself.
Sure, it was only temporary. You can argue the whole thing is elaborately staged make-believe–and indeed, there is some evidence that mask-wearing customs were also somehow involved. But it was a once-a-year reminder not of that which humanity is, but of that which humanity can be.
You see, the entire festival is not a ceremony worshiping a mighty god and singing his praises but a reenactment of a time and a way of life now lost. A reenactment of the Golden Age.
Every generation and every time period longs for some romanticized past time when it was better. To some, that renders such discussions a waste of time; on the contrary, I see it as precisely the key to all of this. The notion of a Golden Age is exactly like that of the angels–it does not matter whether it is “true” in the normal every day sense, because its significance is real whether we like it (or acknowledge it) or not. And to those who might deny that ever any past time be preferable to the culminating achievements of present civilization, I remind you that we are not now, nor have we ever been, riding atop a great straight line ever diagonally upwards continuing ever onward until perhaps reaching some final obstacle in the end. We’re riding on a wheel, riding on a circle. Things come and go, days rise and then pass. And in the great cycle of earthly, and indeed cosmic life, it is neither improbable nor inconceivable that certain phases possess greater shades of gold than others.
Furthermore, it should come as neither improbably nor inconceivable to any thinking person that other ages might possess a higher quality of light and life than this one. Even if this never occurred inside any documented history to which we can point, even if it never actually occurred in any external sense, it exists within us because it’s one of the universe’s most magical potentialities. At this time each year, we get to celebrate that.
Reenact the Golden Age this week and remember how possible it can be. Reenact it in your actions and in your attitudes–serve those by whom you are used to being served, light lots of candles to revel in dancing light even as we are closed in upon by the still-creeping darkness. Eat and drink–and when you think you are done, eat and drink some more!
There can hardly be found, in this world, a better thing to which to raise one’s glass than the better days that we know could be, even if they aren’t here with us now. Don’t wait for next week, don’t limit yourselves to the restrictions of the relatively small holiday offered to us by our present society. Celebrate the possible, and celebrate it now!