New Zealand has lost touch with the natural origins of most of our traditions – we celebrate Christmas in summer, Easter in autumn and Halloween in spring. However, in much the same way that Anzac Day has become the autumn festival that naturally serves to remember the dead as the leaves fall, so has our General Election become what Saturnalia was to the Romans.
The Saturnalia was a festival of lights that took place in Ancient Rome in the weeks leading up to the winter solstice. Like most Northern cultures, the Romans made a point of celebrating their major festival leading up to the winter solstice, for the reason that this occasion marked the lowest levels of light at any point of the year (i.e. it marks the point at which the days start to become brighter and longer).
Characteristic of the Saturnalia was an atmosphere of behavioural licence and role reversal. It was generally accepted during these weeks that a range of behaviours that were normally unconscionable were accepted as part of the general revelry. During the Saturnalia it was understood that slaves could censure their masters without fear of retribution.
Being a Southern Hemisphere country with a weak, derivative culture, New Zealanders have long since forgotten why we have the festival schedule we do. Instead of celebrating the return of the invincible sun, we celebrate a meaningless Christmas ritual in the middle of summer. In other words, we hold our celebrations at the same time that the days start to become darker and shorter, which makes no sense at all.
But just like Halloween, which has spiritually been replaced with Anzac Day on account of that it doesn’t make sense to remember the dead at the end of October in the Southern Hemisphere, so too has Saturnalia/Christmas been spiritually replaced – by the General Election circus.
In ancient Rome, slaves were given licence to criticise the conduct of their masters once a year during the Saturnalia. The festival was known as a time for free speech, without the usual social reprisals. In our culture, the slaves are given licence to criticise the conduct of their masters once every three years during the General Election campaign.
The usual state of affairs is that, like any other time in history, the ruling class taxes the shit out of us while also putting us in cages for arbitrary “crimes” such as using medicinal cannabis without permission. In other words, they leave us in no doubt whatsoever who is in charge and who isn’t.
The degree of sadism necessary to withhold an effective medicine from a dying person is the equal of anything meted out in ancient Rome, and indeed it was less than two years ago that Peter Dunne dismissed as “emotional nonsense” the application of a terminally ill woman, Helen Kelly, to use medicinal cannabis to alleviate the suffering of dying from lung cancer.
During the General Election campaign, however, the slaves are allowed to tell their masters what they think of their leadership. The masters appear before the slaves on television and radio and face questioning, with the slaves even being allowed to go as far as suggesting that a different faction of the ruling class be given the reins.
In the Roman Saturnalia, it was understood by all that there were limits to how far the slaves could push things – after all, everyone knew that the festival was going to end and that the normal social hierarchy would therefore reassert itself. This is how we know that men like Peter Dunne will never be held to account for the deaths he has caused, as this column has previously suggested. The Saturnalia didn’t mean justice, merely respite from injustice.
Australian banks will keep sucking billions out of the economy every year, you still won’t be able to afford to live where you grew up and you still won’t be allowed to grow medicinal cannabis at home. Nothing ever really changes as a result of a General Election – it’s all just a show to allow the plebs to vent some of their resentment before it boils over.
Although it might be possible to suggest such a thing and have it taken seriously during the General Election circus, we all know that normal order will soon reassert itself and the New Zealand populace will return to being submissive sheep who can be led to slaughter without the slightest protest.