The December solstice is just a few days away. It’s the shortest day of the year here in the northern hemisphere. And in the modern calendar, it marks the first day of winter.
In many older cultures, though, the solstice marked not the start of winter, but its middle. And with the promise of longer, warmer days ahead, it was often a time to celebrate.
In ancient Rome, for example, it was celebrated with the Saturnalia, a festival that honored the god Saturn, who was a god of the harvest.
Saturnalia began as a single-day affair, celebrated on what is December 17th in the modern calendar. Yet it proved so popular that it quickly expanded to six days.
That’s because it was a time of feasting and good cheer. People decorated evergreen trees with sweets and ornaments, and performed acts of charity, like forgiving debts and making donations. They also exchanged small gifts, and slaves were given a bit more freedom.
Many of the customs of Saturnalia are observed today as part of the celebration of Christmas. In fact, there may be a relation between Saturnalia and the date of Christmas.
The early Christian Church was looking for a way to overcome the many solstice celebrations throughout Europe. In essence, it followed the philosophy of, “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.” It picked December 25th as the date to commemorate Christ’s birthday, and incorporated some of the trappings of the older festivals into the new celebration of Christmas.
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2011
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