The only downside was that Beirut and its approaches was turned into a giant parking lot by traffic jams and construction works. It is not so bad when you chose to walk around rather than drive; the city is small, and you can easily go from Raouche to Dora.
.. A note of caution, however; you will have to duck a few wannabe Fangio’s, and you will likely need a shower when you get there; the Haussman’s of this age do not seem to factor in human beings in their designs, or anything else that does not have the Mercedes Logo.
So I headed recent advice and went on a random walk (no, literally), and snapped a few pics on my way (OK, the one above is from Morocco…). The breeze was nice and chilly, with the sun's warmth just right, and this view of downtown does it little justice.
For all the squalid appeal of HassAoun's tent city, downtown Beirut was deserted. Yes, the pigeons and doves are making a timid come back, but the customers are few and far between. The taxman did not forget them; Azour's goons at the ministry managed to have notes posted on the doors of empty stores, reminding them to do their civic duty and empty their pockets.
I did not linger along for too long; there is far too much gloom in this real world. So rather than succumb to gloom-by-osmosis, I elected to go towards a copy of this fantasy land. The Géant was a long shot, an impregnable citadel surrounded by treacherous highways and byways. So I followed the traffic jam, which lead me towards the ABC mall in Ashrafieh. Festive the season may not be, but festive it wants to be; the Mall is decorated with flair…
There is even some panache, and a bon enfant atmosphere. I came in just in time to witness a congregation of Lebanese Parliamentarians holding one more session, as appropriate for this Saturnalia season… OK, those were the ABC's clown band, but I dare you to tell them apart!
So, in the shadow of the return of unwelcome Mages, you see we’re still managing to have a happy holiday season.
And since sub sole nihil novi est, here is a great classic from the Economist;
Saturnalia is the most wonderful time of the year, and also the worst. You want to enjoy yourself, but every December you end up exhausted, hungover and broke. All that shopping! All those presents! All that food! All those children and slaves running riot all over the house!
Relax. The key to a great Saturnalia is planning. Follow our question-and-answer guide, and you will never drag yourself like a corpse into January again.
How many days can I take off?
The vital question, of course. Saturnalia was originally only one day, the 14th before the Kalends of January. Augustus allowed three days for it, December 17th to 19th, but he was a man of severe habits. The festival usually lasts for a week, and most people take as much time off as they can get away with. Macrobius talks of lounging around "for most of January". That is certainly too long, but the point of Saturnalia is that, with the schools and the law courts closed, people can take a break from the frantic pace of modern life. Here’s what Saturn himself has to say about it, in Lucian’s words:
During my week the serious is barred; no business allowed. Drinking, noise and games and dice, appointing of kings and feasting of slaves, singing naked, clapping of frenzied hands, an occasional ducking of corked faces in icy water - such are the functions over which I preside.
Not everyone can take a break, of course. Essential services need to be maintained. Cooks go on cooking, accounting for the pall of smog that hangs over us all in December, and the shops stay open for those last-minute gifts you’ve forgotten. Abroad, too, those men engaged on expanding our glorious empire have to go on doing so. Only actually starting battles is forbidden. A generation ago Cicero, writing from Cilicia to a friend back home, described how a minor tribe called the Pindenissitae ("Who the hell are the Pindenissitae?" you will ask) had given him a great Saturnalia present by surrendering to him, and that he had taken 3,000 prisoners who, when sold at auction, had fetched 12m sesterces. "The soldiers are enjoying the festival thoroughly," he added.
Do I have to go to the temple?
Temple-going on the first day of Saturnalia is optional, but it is traditional and good for appearances. Most of us seem to have forgotten the religious point of the festival, if we ever knew what it was. Saturn (just to remind you) is the sickle-wielding god of sowing and grafting. He presided over the Age of Gold, that magic and long-past transformation of the world, when lions lay down with lambs and the earth brought forth crops without ploughing. At Saturn’s feast, for just a few days, we pretend we are back in that time of bliss and plenty, "when wine flowed in rivers, and there were fountains of milk and honey; when all men were good and all men were gold," as Lucian says.
Virgil once wrote that we are expecting a new golden age that will be heralded by the birth of a mystical child, a bringer of universal peace. It’s a nice story for poets and children, but of course we all know that universal peace is what the emperor brings us, if rather more expensively.
What do I wear?
No problem here. You are absolutely required to leave off the toga and put on the synthesis instead. (It’s that thing in the back of your wardrobe which looks like a dressing gown, only made of flimsier stuff.) Togas mean business, lawsuits, affairs of state; the synthesis says that you are going to PARTY. Some people complain that it makes no sense to dress like this when there is ice on the ground and Boreas is blowing, especially when they have sweated through the summer in an all-wool toga praetexta. But nil desperandum - put on lots of tunics underneath, a fur cloak on top, and beat the slave who fires up the hypocaust.
Is it essential to give parties?
Yes, it is. Only social losers hang round the Arcades trying to cadge an invitation. As Lucian says, there are two main reasons for offering Saturnalia hospitality to your friends:
In the first place they banish dull silence from your table, and are ready with a good story, a harmless jest, or some other contribution to entertainment; that is the way to please the gods of wine and love and beauty. And secondly they win your love by spreading abroad next morning your hospitable fame. These are things that would be cheap at a considerable price.
A few party suggestions:
1. Inviting "More than the Graces" (three) but "less than the Muses" (nine) is the best rule.
2. Food should be plentiful but not extravagant, eggs and fish for a starter, followed by boar and turbot, then sow’s teats and Lucrine oysters and sausages and pastry, followed by cheese and fruit for dessert.
3. Keep the wine well watered.
4. Myrtle is always a good choice for decorations.
5. And the conversation should be decent but never serious. Even Caesar, Cicero said, would discuss "only light matters such as literature".
6. Games are essential. "The dice-box reigns supreme," as Martial says. A favourite is choosing a king of the party on a throw of the dice, who then makes the other guests take their clothes off, libel each other or take turns with the flute-girl. People will play for hours, and bet on anything that moves.
What about presents?
This is the biggest Saturnalia headache of all, but the answer is simple: give them to everyone. This means your clients, your patron, your lawyer, your wife, your mistresses, your slaves and your children. Make a list of them, and omit no one. "I hate the crafty and mischievous arts of presents," Martial says; "Gifts are like fish-hooks." But at Saturnalia everyone is fishing, and everyone is biting.
How much should I spend? you will ask. Again, the answer is simple: as much as you can afford. Even the young Claudius, who was thought too much of a simpleton to be given a magistracy or anything of that sort, was allowed 40 pieces of gold by Tiberius to spend on Saturnalia presents. And Pliny the Younger reminds us that Julius Bassus, once pro-consul of Bithynia, defended himself against charges of rapine and extortion in his province by saying that he had needed the money "for a few slight gifts on his birthday and at Saturnalia." This will give you some idea of the expenditure required. Lucian suggests putting aside a tenth of your income, as well as going through your cupboards to see if you can spare any old clothes or tableware. These will do for freedmen. Give your slaves a few pennies to spend at the fair in the Forum, where they sell the sort of trinkets slaves like, and give your children nuts and clay toys: they will be broken in a day anyway. But be extremely careful about how you go about cutting corners with everybody else. The tribune Publicius once suggested that because Saturnalia was such a burden on the poor (and even the non-poor), no one should give anything but wax tapers to anyone richer than himself. He was obviously a fool.
Whole books have been written on what to give at Saturnalia. Martial’s Good Gift Guide suggests you cannot go wrong with a nice stationery set, new toga, alabaster bottles for the ladies, or set of silverware. If these are too expensive, the standard offerings these days are a box of candles, set of napkins or jar of plums. Although unoriginal, these are quite acceptable; and, if kept unopened, they can be recycled with nobody noticing. It was sheer bad luck that when Umber sent Martial a festive cornucopia of writing tablets, beans, tablecloths, sponges, olives and figs by special delivery (8 tall Syrian slaves), Martial should have spotted that these were all the presents that people had sent to Umber in the five days before.
If you prefer not to recycle, you can try to reduce the worth of your presents year by year, so that the togas get thinner, the cups lighter and the candles more transparent. But this should not be taken too far. Martial complained that the weight of Postumianus’s present of silverware fell from 4 pounds in the first year to 2 pounds in the second year and 1 in the fifth, until in the seventh he sent him "1/2 a pound of silver scrapings in a little cup". To another colleague he wrote what might be called an "Ode to Meanness":
You send me, Paulus, a leaf from a praetor’s crown, and give it the name of a wine-cup. Some toy of the stage has perhaps recently been covered with this thin substance, and a dash of pale saffron-water washed it off. Or is it rather a piece of gilding scraped off (as I think it may be) by the nail of a cunning servant from the leg of your couch?
Many friends are a puzzle when it comes to presents. Looking for that special gift for the man or woman who has everything? Can’t face another jar of plums this year? Why not consider some of Martial’s other suggestions:
A peacock-feather fly-whisk
A snow strainer
"Cilician socks from the beard of the fetid goat"
How can I avoid family arguments over which shows to watch?
There is no point in having such arguments, since nothing of quality is ever put on for the holidays. It is always the same old formula: criminals torn to pieces, a commercial break, followed by Gauls eviscerated, and ending with a crowd-scramble when the emperor throws out vouchers for free wine.
Do I have to give my slaves time off?
Unfortunately, yes. Part of the vaguely religious point of Saturnalia is that it is a festival of freedom: "When I was king," Lucian’s Saturn says, "slavery was not." This is why prisoners are not executed (except for your viewing pleasure) and children are excused from school; and it is also why your slaves are allowed to dress up, dance, insult you to your face, refuse to wait at table and generally misbehave. It is horribly inconvenient, just when you are trying to impress your friends and hangers-on with the quality of your domestic service, to find it in flagrante in the garden, or throwing up in the street. But just for a week, all men are equal. You must indulge all this with a tight-lipped smile.
How do I deal with unwanted guests?
You must be nice to them, even when they are relatives you wish you didn’t have or friends on whom you thought you had turned your back. That is the Saturnalia spirit. And remember, when they walk cheerily through the door, that things might be worse: they might be Julius Caesar and half his army, who turned up uninvited one Saturnalia and expected Cicero to entertain them. The great orator, of course, was stoical about it:
It was really very pleasant. But when he arrived at Philippus’s place on the evening of December 18th, the house was so thronged by the soldiers that there was hardly a spare room for Caesar himself to dine in. Two thousand men, no less! I was really worried about what would happen the next day, but Cassius Barba came to my rescue and posted sentries on the house. On the 19th, after being anointed, Caesar took his place at dinner. He was following a course of emetics, and so both ate and drank with uninhibited enjoyment. It was a really fine, well-appointed meal. His entourage moreover was lavishly entertained in three other dining rooms. The humbler freedmen and slaves had all they wanted - the smarter ones I entertained in style. In a word, I showed them I knew how to live. Still, my guest was not the kind of person to whom one says, "Do come again when you are next in the neighbourhood."
Can’t I just skip the whole thing?
You must be a philosopher, or some other sad Greek. It is not done to get out of Saturnalia, and only spoilsports try. However, if you insist, you could always retire to your country house and, once there, retreat still further to a summer house in the garden. Pliny the Younger did this. He told a friend that when he sat there, with the interior curtains drawn and the windows open on views of the sea, he was quite unable to hear, in the house, "the licence and mirth of the servants. I don’t hinder their festivities," he wrote, "and they don’t disturb my studies." The philosopher Seneca did much the same in his flat in the middle of Rome, and Juvenal said he knew lots of starving poets who simply spent the holidays in their attics, getting their verses ready for the publisher.
For poets, of course, the unbridled excess and commercialism of the festival is disgusting. Others might agree. But there is a good reason for taking part, even if you remain unmoved by the magic of these "best of days", as Catullus calls them. The world’s only superpower will never preserve its booming economy without the wild holiday spending of ordinary Romans. In this consumer-led Golden Age, Saturnalia is no longer an indulgence. It’s a civic duty.
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