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December marks the start of winter in the modern western calendar. The season begins on the solstice, which is the shortest day of the year. In many older cultures, though, the solstice marked the middle of winter. And with the promise of longer days ahead, it was a time to celebrate.
In Scandinavia, for example, December 13th was Saint Lucy’s Day, a commemoration of the year’s longest nights. In Sweden, girls dressed in white and served pastries, and people sang songs to celebrate the return of light in the weeks ahead.
And in Rome, the solstice was celebrated with Saturnalia, a festival that honored Saturn, a god of the harvest. It began as a single-day affair, on December 17th. It was so popular, though, that it quickly expanded to six days.
Saturnalia was a time of feasting and high spirits. People decorated trees with sweets and ornaments. They performed acts of charity, and exchanged small gifts. Houses were decorated with candles and lamps, and villages built big bonfires, to cheer up the long winter nights.
Many of the customs of Saturnalia are observed today as part of the celebration of Christmas. In fact, there may be a connection between the two.
The early Church was looking to co-opt the many pagan solstice celebrations throughout Europe. So it set December 25th as the date to celebrate the birth of Christ. And it blended some of the trappings of the older festivals into the new celebration of Christmas.
Script by Damond Benningfield