Paul Revere by Cyrus Dallin, North End, Boston
Wednesday, December 20, 2017
HAPPY WINTER SOLSTICE!
Here are some interesting facts about today's Winter Solstice.
Saturnalia, held in mid-December, is an ancient Roman pagan festival honoring the agricultural god Saturn. Saturnalia celebrations are the source of many of the traditions we now associate with Christmas.
During Saturnalia, work and business came to a halt. Schools and courts of law closed, and the normal social patterns were suspended. People decorated their homes with wreaths and other greenery, and shed their traditional togas in favor of colorful clothes known as synthesis. Even slaves did not have to work during Saturnalia, but were allowed to participate in the festivities; in some cases, they sat at the head of the table while their masters served them.
Instead of working, Romans spent Saturnalia gambling, singing, playing music, feasting, socializing and giving each other gifts. Wax taper candles called cerei were common gifts during Saturnalia, to signify light returning after the solstice.
Originally celebrated on December 17, Saturnalia was extended first to three and eventually to seven days. The date has been connected with the winter sowing season, which in modern Italy varies from October to January. Remarkably like the Greek Kronia, it was the liveliest festival of the year. All work and business were suspended. Slaves were given temporary freedom to say and do what they liked, and certain moral restrictions were eased. The streets were infected with a Mardi Gras madness; a mock king was chosen (Saturnalicius princeps); the seasonal greeting io Saturnalia was heard everywhere. The closing days of the Saturnalia were known as Sigillaria, because of the custom of making, toward the end of the festival, presents of candles, wax models of fruit, and waxen statuettes which were fashioned by the sigillarii or manufacturers of small figures in wax and other media. The cult statue of Saturn himself, traditionally bound at the feet with woolen bands, was untied, presumably to come out and join the fun.
The influence of the Saturnalia upon the celebrations of Christmas and the New Year has been direct. The fact that Christmas was celebrated on the birthday of the unconquered sun (dies solis invicti nati) gave the season a solar background, connected with the kalends of January (January 1, the Roman New Year) when houses were decorated with greenery and lights, and presents were given to children and the poor.
IS CHRISTMAS A PAGAN HOLIDAY?
Thanks to the Roman Empire’s conquests in Britain and the rest of Europe from the second century B.C. to the fourth century A.D.—and their suppression of older seasonal rites practiced by the Celts and other groups—today’s Western cultures derive many of their traditional celebrations of midwinter from Saturnalia.
The Christian holiday of Christmas, especially, owes many of its traditions to the ancient Roman festival, including the time of year Christmas is celebrated. The Bible does not give a date for Jesus’ birth; in fact, some theologians have concluded he was probably born in spring, as suggested by references to shepherds and sheep in the Nativity story.
But by the fourth century A.D., Western Christian churches settled on celebrating Christmas on December 25, which allowed them to incorporate the holiday with Saturnalia and other popular pagan midwinter traditions. Pagans and Christians co-existed (not always happily) during this period, and this likely represented an effort to convince the remaining pagan Romans to accept Christianity as Rome’s official religion. Before the end of the fourth century, many of the traditions of Saturnalia—including giving gifts, singing, lighting candles, feasting and merrymaking—had become absorbed by the traditions of Christmas as many of us know them today.