Poor Seneca. Saturnalia used to be a single day! Then suddenly it's stretched out to a week? Add in the preparations and the shopping and the holiday Muzak in every elevator and what's a Roman senator to do...can't we all just settle down and remember to keep Saturn in Saturnalia!?
I sure love reading thoughts like those in Seneca's letter on Festivals and Fasting. The lines feel contemporary, but that's because complaining about change is as old as humanity. I guarantee 200,000 years ago some crotchety old guy complained that, "we used to feast only on the blue moon and now it's every full moon? Bah!"
Of course, most of us modern Stoics are not worried about Saturnalia, but we do have holidays to celebrate. I'm a Christmas man, myself. How should I approach the holiday as a Stoic? Does Stoicism care? Seneca pondered these questions as well. Continuing in his letter, he says:
Here we find Seneca laying out two Stoic solutions. The first is to give a hearty BAH-HUMBUG to the whole idea of holidays and simply continue on in Stoic soberness. Considering that Saturnalia often consisted of drunk mobs staggering around in the streets, this tactic isn't unsound. Our Stoic aim is to live with virtue so who cares what people think? Go home and remain content. However, I'm a bigger fan of solution two.
Two consists of remaining Stoic while participating in festivities. As Seneca says, "it shows greater self-control to refuse to withdraw oneself and to do what the crowd does, but in a different way.' If a Stoic is above being swayed by the crowd, what danger is the crowd to them? This is the tactic that we see recorded by the Roman author Gellius.
Here are some real Stoics at a party! They're enjoying themselves. They're drinking wine, but not bottles of it. They're talking with their friends and they'll remember it tomorrow. They're living out what I like to think of as sustainable merry-making; avoiding burning the candle at both ends, but definitely lighting the candle.
As I'm writing this my wife and I are sharing a wonderfully boozy homemade eggnog. After I save and publish we'll enjoy the light of the Christmas tree as well as each other's company. Later in the week I'll take part in local San Diego festivities. Later still we will fly halfway across the country to have Christmas with my family. At all these moments I can live stoically, fully participate, and enjoy life.
Merry Christmas and Io, Saturnalia!
I realize that Seneca is speaking of mass festivals and not so much the at home gatherings many of us will soon be attending. For anyone that needs Stoic council concerning the emotions that come up during these smaller gatherings, might I suggest 9 Ways to Stop Being Upset by Others?