Atheist Billboard Set On Fire By ‘Christian’ Vandals

Why Such A Big Deal Over This Saturnalia Billboard?

This Saturnalia billboard in Pitman, NJ has drawn several attempted acts of vandalism. Why is it such a big deal? Their Christ banner still hangs downtown.
Photo credit: South Jersey Times

Saturnalia sign a response to Christmas banner.

Pitman, NJ is the site of a huge billboard which proclaims, “Keep the Saturn in Saturnalia.” The sign was erected by the Freedom From Religion Foundation in response to… well, you probably have the gist of this already. But it’s complicated.

The main street of Pitman is called Broadway and, slung across it, is a banner which reads, “Keep Christ in Christmas.” The FFRF has objected to that banner since it went up in 2011, saying that it is illegal and does not have the permit to hang across the street. Having been ignored, they decided to make their point in another manner. So, the Saturnalia sign went up.

The FFRF explained:

The billboard will be up for a month and is meant to counter the “Keep Christ in Christmas” display by the Knights of Columbus that the borough seems to think is appreciated by persons of non-Christian religions and those who follow no creed at all. FFRF and its local members were stonewalled in December 2012 by borough officials who denied FFRF a permit to display “Keep Saturn in Saturnalia” even though the Knights of Columbus banner was allowed. The banner’s traditional spot is downtown above Broadway Avenue, where it’s strung by firefighters.

Saturnalia billboard attracts protests.

On Tuesday night, someone tried to burn the sign down. An off-duty police officer, who was dining in a restaurant across the street from it, spotted two men standing under the billboard. He saw them light the supports on fire, after throwing gasoline on them. The fire didn’t stay lit and, by that time, the officer had began to make his way across the street. The men spotted him and others who were drawn by the activity, and fled. Descriptions of the truck they drove are pretty specific and Pitman police are confident that they will be able to find the culprits.

This attempted arson is only one of a handful of protests by intolerant bigots concerned citizens. On Sunday, a man in a Santa Claus suit stood around under the sign for a few hours — though what does Santa have to do with Christ? Later that day, three people were stopped by police when they put a ladder against the billboard. The man, woman and child were going to paste a picture of a manger over the sign when police chased them off.

What the heck is Saturnalia?

“For how many years shall this festival abide! Never shall age destroy so holy a day! While the hills of Latium remain and father Tiber, while thy Rome stands and the Capitol thou hast restored to the world, it shall continue” ~ Statius, “Silvae”

The ancient Romans set aside a week in mid-December — though, per various Emperors, the number of days fluctuated — to honor the god of seed and sowing, Saturn, and his consort, Ops. Together, these deities represented the bounty of the fields and orchards, as well as heaven and earth. Farmers would have just finished their autumn planting so, naturally, a festival was in order. Hence, Saturnalia.

This was the most popular festival on the Roman calendar and with good reason: the social order was reversed and rules were relaxed. Slaves didn’t have to work and could engage in gambling and other vices. Colorful clothes replaced the dreary togas and there was feasting, gifts exchanged (candles were popular) and friends visited one another’s homes. A “Lord of Misrule” was chosen, usually a slave, and he ruled over the festivities. During the Saturnalia, slaves were waited upon and treated as equals. Drinking and carousing, feasting and games, singing and dancing were activities favored by Saturn. The Romans were happy to comply.

How Saturnalia became Christmas.

When Christianity became the official religion of Rome in 312 CE, public events saw the continuation of the Saturnalia with Christian overtones. As late as 449 CE, Saturnalia was still celebrated, still very popular but only as a festival which “used to honor the god Saturn.” So the religious aspect of the holiday had disappeared.

But it was replaced with another holiday in Christmas, which began in the Roman empire and spread throughout the Mediterranean. By 354 CE it was on the Roman Philocalian calendar as December 25th.

Why did the FFRF choose Pitman, NJ?

The FFRF says that it first became involved with Pitman when a resident of the town contacted them about the banner. The resident believed that display violated the separation of church and state. The Foundation tried to contact various agencies in Pitman but were stonewalled at every turn. Meanwhile the banner, which is sponsored by the Knights of Columbus, is put up by city employees.

Pitman is a small town that grew from land grants to a Methodist summer camp. The town is dry — no alcohol is served on any day of the week. The streets that branch off from the auditorium of the camp bear the names of Jesus’ disciples. So, you could say that Pitman is about as religious as a town can get. But that doesn’t exempt them from the rules of the land. One of those rules is the freedom to worship — or not — as each citizen desires. The FFRF has the right to display the Saturnalia billboard and the resident who contacted them has every right to feel uncomfortable with the banner.

But, in Pitman, it’s apparent that the Constitution plays second fiddle to their religion. The Mayor, Russ Johnson, admits that he rebuffed the FFRRF when they first asked to hang a Saturnalia banner. He told them to “find their own space” yet, when they did, attempted vandalism met their efforts. Apparently, the good people of Pitman can’t just celebrate their Christmas in their way. They have to stamp out anything that isn’t their way.

The FFRF is offering a $2,000 reward for information leading to an arrest and conviction of either of the wanna-be arsonists. The police will only say that they are keeping an eye on the billboard and will charge anyone they catch trying to vandalize it. At least they understand their job. Too bad the rest of the town can’t just have their Christmas and leave the billboard alone. Are they that insecure? Why not celebrate more instead of lashing out at other holidays? Merry Christmas and Io Saturn!