The association established long ago by archaeologists and anthropologists between agricultural development and class society made people think of the first celebrations of the winter solstice as an early sign of the fracture of society in antagonistic classes.
However, findings over the last two decades have completely changed our perspective on Primitive Communism and its relationship to urbanization and agriculture. Today we know that both the systematic cultivation of land and livestock and the emergence of urbanization took place in a framework that was still communitarian. And in Ukraine there is archaeological evidence that the great cities of primitive communism also hosted their own solstice celebrations.
As almost always, classical mythology already gave us some clues. We usually associate the celebrations of the winter solstice in Rome to the Saturnalia or Saturn festival. Obviously, they were dedicated to this agricultural god who is also a patriarchal symbol -as is the whole of the hierarchical pantheon- and therefore coupled with the fracture of the human community into classes. But in reality, the Saturnalia was the evolution of the Greek Brumalia, related to the Greek Lenaia, which highlighted Liber (later turned into Bacchus, the Greek Dionysus, a god that still preserved a strong pre-patriarchal content) and Cronus, the god of time who is also the guardian of primitive communism.
This nostalgia for the Golden Age, promise of an always longed-for return to the human community, remained in the Saturnalia under the form of a true and carnivalesque confusion of classes: domestic slaves theatrically imitated their masters and went out to party dressed in their clothes; priests recommended freeing slaves during those days for being the most propitious ones, etc. The first great mutation of the feast is therefore a great social catharsis. The ruling class used the celebrations to release social tensions without questioning the prevailing relations.
It is often said that the imposition of Christianity eliminated Saturnalia and turned it into the celebration of Christian Christmas. In reality, it is a little more complicated. The idea of a total and profoundly Christian Europe before the 12th century is only half true. The Dominicans, the order of the preachers, were founded in Toulouse during the 13th century not only to fight the bases of the Cathar heresy in the North of the Pyrenees, but also to eliminate cults and pagan rites (that is, peasant rites, with the word stemming from pagus in Latin, the countryside) in the whole Cantabrian region. The condemnations of pagan rituals during the solstice are constant in all the medieval ecclesiastical councils, especially those in the Iberian Peninsula. But those solstice rituals, of Celtic-Roman origin for the most part, were far from the Saturnalia in their more subversive aspects, they were in fact atavisms.
The saturnal continuity will not be resumed from a ritual continuity, but because of the reappearance of the need for catharsis. It was the low clergy themselves who reinvented Saturnalia as the Feast of Fools from the 14th century. These celebrations are actually post-solstitial: they were held from December 26 to 30… that is, in the gap between the great Catholic celebration and the celebration that the commercial bourgeoisie had chosen as the beginning of its accounting year, Jesus’ circumcision, on January 1. Symbolically inserted between the two main classes in struggle at that time, they were the most significant celebrations of feudal decadence, the product and escape valve for social tensions that seemed unbearable. Not by chance did the myth of the Golden Age reappear under new forms at the same time: the Occitan Land of Cockaigne and its Germanic equivalents, and, after the conquest of Peru, in the imaginary Jauja of the the Iberian peninsula’s poor and needy.
What does a feast of abundance mean in a class society?
All along this journey through the solstice festivities under class societies, what we see is a tension that is multiplied in times of decadence. On the one hand the unnameable and unacceptable: the possibility of an abundant and classless society, whose real existence in the past denies the ruling classes as necessary, denies them as true creators of wealth and protectors of the social whole. On the other hand, the unbearability of the very conditions of exploitation, the need to overcome the social conditions, to enjoy even punctually the sensation of abundance and fraternity.
The tension is resolved in the only way satisfactory to the ruling classes… and the other exploiting classes who hope to become so: as a joke, as a temporarily allowed excess, in which the exploited classes can represent their aspirations only under a clownish form… without ceasing to question themselves for a single instant, owing even that moment of liberation to their exploiters.
There still remained a few centuries before the bourgeoisie turned Christmas into a symbol of everything’ s commodification, the Russian revolution moved the festivities to January 1st and the stalinist counter-revolution set the Christmas star against the red star of internationalism… but Christmas was already a battlefield.