The Winter Solstice & Saturnalia

(Post 1 of a series of 4)

Let’s face it, Christmas is a weird holiday. What does the baby Jesus have in common with a fat man in a red suit who rides a sleigh pulled by reindeer? What does a virgin named Mary have in common with a green Grinch who lives in a cave? Why do we cut down trees, bring them into our homes, and cover them with lights and ornaments? Why do we buy presents, wrap them in beautiful paper, and give them to people? How did shepherds get linked up with a snowman named Frosty? How did a little boy with a drum end up at the manger scene? This is odd stuff.

The truth is, it takes many circumstances, cultures, and centuries to create this strange hodgepodge that we call Christmas. So, I’m going to devote my next few posts to explaining the origins of the traditions of the holiday. For this first post, I want to talk about the worship of the sun. I need to begin with this subject because this is where our Christmas holiday really gets its start.

Historically speaking, one of the classic trademarks of mankind has been sun-worship. Reaching far back into man’s history, many civilizations have studied the sun and devised times of celebration based upon the sun’s alignments with the earth. To those ancient peoples, one of the most important times of the year was the winter solstice. You ask, “What is the winter solstice?” Follow with me and I’ll give you the answer.

It takes the earth 365 days to make one full orbit around the sun. This is where we get the concept of a year. But as the earth continually goes about its orbiting of the sun, the orbiting alters where the sun appears on the earth’s equator. The earth’s equator is that imaginary line that divides the planet into a Northern Hemisphere and a Southern Hemisphere.

The day of the summer solstice is the day of the year that the sun appears farthest north from the earth’s equator. On that day, the time from what we call sunrise to what we call sunset is longer than it is on any other day of the year. That’s why we call that day the longest day of the year. The summer solstice is usually June 21.

After that day, though, the earth’s orbit causes the sun to increasingly appear farther and farther south from the equator. The day of the winter solstice, then, is that day of the year when the sun appears farthest south from the equator. On that day, the time from what we call sunrise to what we call sunset is shorter than it is on any other day of the year. That’s why we call that day the shortest day of the year. The winter solstice is December 21st or 22nd.

Ancient civilizations ingeniously figured out how to calculate when the winter solstice would take place, and they took that time of the year very seriously. To them, the sun decreasing in visibility as the days of the year moved forward spoke of the dying of the sun. They believed that at the time of the winter solstice the sun actually needed to be reborn so that it could live another year. That’s why, in their religious superstition, they organized annual festivals that were held during the days just before and after the day of the winter solstice. These festivals were celebrations dedicated to the sun god, whatever name that god went by in any given civilization.

The specifics of these festivals differed depending upon the civilization. Some civilizations threw parties during the days close to the winter solstice. Some lit candles. Some decorated their towns with bright, pretty decorations. But the basic motivation for the festivals was always the superstitious idea that the sun had grown weak to the point of death and needed to be reborn.

Well, the Roman empire eventually became the world’s dominant empire, and Rome’s version of these winter solstice celebrations was called Saturnalia. It lasted from December 17th through December 24th. December 25th, then, was celebrated with a feast to commemorate the birth (rebirth) of the sun.

That feast day was known as the Birthday of the Unconquerable Sun. During the days of the Saturnalia festival and the Birthday of the Unconquerable Sun everyone in the Roman empire was excused from work. Mardi-Gras like celebrations took place in the streets. Bonfires were lit. Evergreen wreaths were brought into homes. Gifts were even exchanged. Authority figures received gifts such as urns, jewelry, coins, or gold, while common people received gifts such as wax candles and little clay dolls. In other words, in the Roman empire, December 17th through December 25th looked a lot like our modern-day Christmastime.

 

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