Every Christmas our kids, grandkids, and their dogs arrive at our house for what always turns out to be a full-fledged bacchanalia. The grandkids shake the walls with their rough housing and yelling, the parents drink too much, and the dogs yip and yap and chase their tails, sometimes leaving little puddles.
My husband and I love our kids and grandkids and don’t want to ruin their fun, but we also don’t want to go nuts. What should we do?
—Harriet from Holston Hills
As surely as mischievous children become saints around Christmas, the Knoxonomist is besieged every holiday season with pleas for advice on dealing with vexatious houseguests. On occasion he has graciously responded, as he did last year when he advised a misanthropic homeowner to secretly move before the unwanted guests arrived. Generally, though, the Knoxonomist discards such pleas because he dislikes treading old ground, and readers have new and urgent problems requiring his assistance.
And so, Harriet, I imagine you can understand that the Knoxonomist was on the verge of tossing your missive in favor of one asking whether it was acceptable to have on the family roof eight inflatable reindeer pulling an inflatable Santa in his inflatable sleigh, or if there must be nine reindeer. The Knoxonomist had anticipated writing a mini-dissertation that would include learned discussion of Clement Clarke Moore’s 1893 poem “On the Night Before Christmas” and Johnny Marks’ version of “Rudolph the Red-Nose Reindeer,” made famous by Gene Autry in 1949. The question, of course, is whether Rudolph is de rigueur. As should be obvious, this is important.
But something about your question, Harriet, gave the Knoxonomist pause. You didn’t ask about how to get rid of unwanted guests or how to change their behavior. You asked about how to change your own attitude. That is indicative of a reflective mind, one that deserves a tip of the Knoxonomist’s hat. In addition, you used both the words “bacchanalia” and “Christmas.” You combined the pagan with the Christian, as many ancient souls have done. In essence, Harriet, you want a philosophic answer, and not a tactical one. The Knoxonomist will do his best.
First, the Knoxonomist will note that the term “saturnalia” is probably more apt than “bacchanalia.” The Roman Saturnalia, occurring in mid-December, honored the god Saturn, and was a time of riotous good cheer. Everything was topsy-turvy during Saturnalia– the masters served the slaves, the slaves back talked the masters, the low were brought high, and the high were brought low. There was prodigious feasting, drinking, dancing, singing; folks gave each other gifts, often jokey ones. According to the scandalous 1st Century B.C. poet Catullus, it was the “best of days.” It was the December holiday before Christmas began to be celebrated, and many of our Christmas customs come from the Saturnalia. The Roman Bacchanalia, while similarly freewheeling, was associated with the Dionysian mystery cults, and according to the Roman historian Livy, featured nocturnal drunken behavior, human sacrifices, and orgies, though Livy was probably being hyperbolic. Regardless. Harriet, since your concern is with the exuberant behavior of your children and your children’s children, the Knoxonomist is going to charitably assume that “bacchanalia” is not the term you meant.
Now to your question: how to achieve peace of mind without ruining the fun of your houseguests? The Knoxonomist has two points to offer for consideration, both designed to provide perspective. First, it could be far worse, and in fact, has been far worse, even here in Knoxville. In A Knoxville Christmas, a fun little book by local historian Jack Neely, there’s a chapter titled “The Saturnalia of 1893.” The Christmas celebration was particularly raucous that year: powerful fireworks were set off everywhere, two buildings caught fire, windows were shattered by “something like dynamite bombs,” ruffians terrified folks by rolling buggy wheels down the streets, and police were attacked when they tried to arrest the rowdiest. At any rate, by Christmas evening, “the intersection of Gay and Cumberland ‘looked like a back-lot trash pile’.” Neely notes that the day after one newspaper quipped, “The spirit of paganism was rampant yesterday.”
As raucous as your heathen family may be, Harriet, I doubt they are as destructive as participants of the 1893 Saturnalia, a fact for which you, your husband, your neighbors, and Knoxville itself can be grateful.
If that is not enough, then I suggest reading Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy, written around 524 A.D. It too, like Christmas, is a combination of the pagan and the Christian, though the work wears the two influences lightly. Boethius was a Neo-Platonist and Christian who found comfort writing Consolation while unjustly imprisoned for treason against the Ostrogothic King Theodoric the Great; for that alleged crime, he was eventually executed. Even if Boethius’ ruminations on free will, virtue, justice, and the transitory nature of fame and glory don’t help you put your own woes in perspective, reading such an interesting book might help you ignore the fact that your youngest grandchild is writing “I luv u granny” on the living room wall with nail polish he stole off your cosmetic table.
Should I have eight or nine inflatable reindeer pulling an inflatable Santa in an inflatable sleigh on my rooftop?
—Frank from Forest Heights
The Knoxonomist is thrilled that he can, in fact, respond to your question, but sadly, he must do so briefly. “Twas the Night Before Christmas,” written in 1832, gives us eight reindeer. “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” written in 1939, adds Rudolph to that number. The former wasn’t written for commercial gain; the second was written by an ad man for Montgomery Wards, which used it to entice zillions of customers into the department store. Because the Knoxonomist believes that Christmas is far too commercialized, he suggests you forget about Rudolph. However, Frank, since you’re actually contemplating sticking a kitschy, mass-produced, inflatable Santa scene on your roof, perhaps the commercialization of Christmas isn’t one of your concerns.