Thanksgiving, once again, is here and gone. I know I had too much to eat and drink. How about you?
Excess is a regular part of the natural order. Our bodies turn excess calories into fat cells – technically, stored energy for later use. Most excess weight, however, is simply lugged around serving unwittingly as a contributing factor to health problems. Alcohol, on the other hand, is eliminated by the body. But a morning-after dehydration headache, caused by excessive drinking, lets you know you overdid it. Long-term excessive drinking, of course, will kill you.
Excess has its consequences.
Excess, nevertheless, plays an important role in the survival process. You and I are here thanks to an excessive amount of spermatozoa, from which emerged one little victor to join forces with an ovum. Survival of the fittest and the fertilized! And not only that, some of the plants which provide food, oxygen, and beauty upon the earth produce seeds for their own reproduction numbering in excess of hundreds and thousands. As a Texas gardener, I plant basil for the summer and cilantro for the winter (for year-round pesto). For seven years running, I haven’t had to purchase seeds to keep my gardens growing. Their seed production is voluminous; I only have to figure out where I left the seeds collected from the previous season!
Historically, Northern Hemisphere winter has been the season of rest and recuperation. During winter seasons ancestral, many of our forebears rejoiced in the gathered harvest, savored freshly slaughtered meat, and delighted in new beer and wine. Before hunkering down to wait out the winter, trusting their accumulated supplies to hold out – our Northern Hemisphere ancestors celebrated. The winter solstice, December 21, marking the rebirth of the sun, has traditionally been associated with feasts and festivals replete with excesses. Our own secular Christmastime holiday is a direct descendant of these revelries.
Roman Saturnalia and misrule, centered on feasting and gift-giving, also featured societal role reversals where servants and peasants became lords and ladies for a day or short season. The usually steady tables of fortune were turned, if only for a moment. During misrule (common in European societies and colonial America) individuals of low socioeconomic status demanded that their wealthier neighbors and patrons treat them – the servants and peons of society – as if they were the wealthy and deserving. Servants pounded on the doors of their superiors demanding fresh meat and fresh brew. For the most part, these and far more unsavory indulgences were tolerated during misrule. You might have heard or read about the Puritans of Massachusetts infamously outlawing Christmas in the late 1600s. It wasn’t the legendary anniversary of the Savior’s birth with which they had trouble, but the simultaneous misrule celebrations that exalted excesses, some acceptable and others decidedly distasteful.
Later, in the 1800s, misrule evolved into a new type of social inversion that has persisted to our own day, justly captured in the well-known Mel Tormé lyric: Christmas was made for children. In the mid-1800s, before compulsory schooling, children were understood to be miniature adults who occupied the bottom rung of social hierarchy along with peasants and servants. Modern secular Christmas – a family celebration – was created at this time with children becoming the focus of charity and goodwill. Misrule became domesticated, but its excesses were not lost in the transition.
Many of our familial antecedents received only oranges and hard candy for Christmas as children during the Depression (they were thankful for it, though – ask them while you still can and they’ll tell you). As if DNA code, the excesses inherent to the original secular celebrations that shaped our modern Christmas – Saturnalia and misrule – survived the Depression and now thrive as never before. Today’s high and holy season of excess – starting with Black Friday Eve (it used to be called Thanksgiving) and continuing through New Year’s Day celebrations – is unmatched in terms of devotion to consumerism, materialism, consumption, waste, and over-indulgence.
As the wisdom teacher of Ecclesiastes says, there is a time for all things under the sun. Even excess. I enjoy the extended holiday, especially as my birthday falls during the season. It’s a good thing to celebrate the milestones of this life – on occasion – with a bit of excess. A case of really good wine, a lavish celebratory meal, an expensive trip with loved ones, extended vacation, tickets to a show – it’s your own misrule for a day or season.
It’s natural in the Northern Hemisphere to overdo it a bit at this time of the year. It’s been this way for millennia. But, as wisdom says, all good things in moderation. Whereas a season or moment of excess can have, on occasion, a proper place, we best be wary of its supposed charms.
Father Richard Rohr says: “Excess turns all gifts into curses.”
We live in a society where excess has become a way of life, a way of understanding the world, a way of being and interacting in the world. Excess, a cultural value revered and worshipped since the early 1980s in the US, invites extremism and undermines societal common good. How much is enough?
T. Carlos Anderson is the author of Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good (Blue Ocotillo/ACTA, 2014).