The austerity of winter has always had a profound impact on populations living in temperate climates. This may explain the popularity of Sun-worship rituals and the diffusion of megalithic structures constructed to receive a shaft of sunlight in their central chamber at dawn of the winter solstice. In traditional societies the month leading to winter was a “feast month”: with harvest completed, provisions loaded and snow on the ground, time was available to celebrate and engage in social activities; sacrifices and offerings were held; fruits were tied to the branches of trees; candles and winter fires lit.
Harvest festivals typically took place later in warmer countries and in Ancient Rome, they were celebrated in December, honouring the god Saturn.
Saturn, after whom Saturday is named, and whose mythological reign was depicted as a “Golden Age” of plenty and peace, was at a later stage conflated with the Greek Cronus and associated with generativeness, wealth, periodic renewal and liberation. As Cicero mentioned, Saturn-Cronos represented “that power which maintains the cyclic course of times and seasons” [De Natura Deorum, Book II, Part ii, Section c]. This close link to seasons and an understanding of the cyclical passage of time, especially the temporal transition of the new year, reflects in the image of an elderly man holding a sickle or scythe associating him with agriculture and the major festival marking the end of the sowing season. Saturnalia, originally taking place on December 17 (Saturn’s “birthday”), and gradually extended to end on December 23, became the most popular celebration in all the Empire’s provinces.
During this ancient and complex festival, complemented since 217 BCE with the Greek Kronia, halls were decked with evergreens; gifts were exchanged; Romans would parade wearing masks and animal skins, while the State would stop executions and refrain from declaring war. The figure of Saturn, kept during the year with its legs bound in wool, was released: an “unbinding” of Saturn-Time commemorating the conditions of the lost “Golden Age” before Saturn’s rule was overthrown. Depending on the Roman epoch, expressions of this sentiment varied in extremes, from the ritual and sacred to the profane and material. Not all of them were desirable conditions, driving a temporary release from civilised constraint. Boundaries were lifted and social inversion was widespread: year-end celebrations in which masters acted as slaves and vice-versa were popular in several regions of the Mediterranean, inspired by earlier Mesopotamia.
Late antiquity interpretations depicted Saturnalia as a festival of renewal of light, culminating in the winter solstice which, in the Northern Hemisphere, occurs around December 21st. With the Sun at its greatest distance below the celestial equator, it marks the shortest period of daylight of the year, after which the reversal of the lengthening of nights and shortening of days begins: the journey of gradual elevation of the Sun in the sky.
Before the adoption of the Gregorian calendar, the shortest day of the year was December 24th. Eventually, in the first century AD, Saturnalia’s last day was moved to December 25th, the first day in which daylight increased — the “rebirth” of the Sun, but not yet “Christmas” for early Christians. Not only was Easter by far their most significant festival, but Christmas was not a holy-day at all until the second bishop of Rome (ca. 130 AD) declared that the Nativity of Christ (the Christian Latin word for Christmas is natālis/nātus, “to have come to the light” or “to be born”) should be celebrated during the Saturnalia period (a single day was not specified). The Roman historian Sextus Africanus (180-250 AD) dated Jesus’ conception to March 25th (Spring equinox), the same date upon which he held that the world was created: nine months after would result in a December 25th birth. In 354 AD Pope Julius I chose this as the day commemorating the birth of Christ, probably because it was the last day of the Saturnalia celebration. However, in that period of Roman history, December 25th was also a civil holiday honouring the Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, the “Birthday of the Unconquered Sun”.
Sol Invictus, the official Sun-God of the late Empire and patron of soldiers, held special prominence as god of day (light) and loyalty, and played a prominent role in the Mithraic mysteries, especially popular in the Roman army. The cult to Sol (“Sun”) was continuous from the earliest history of the city and Invictus (“unconquered, invincible”) was an epithet used for several deities, including Jupiter, Mars, Hercules, and Apollo. Emperor Aurelian made Sol Invictus a state religion on 25th of December 274 AD, and in 325 AD Constantine, the first Christian emperor, declared the day to be an Immovable Feast for the whole Empire. Brought up in the Sol Invictus cult, he regarded himself as the supreme spiritual leader of both Sol Invictus and Christianity, seeking to unify both into a single state religion.
Despite efforts to control Saturnalia’s most subversive tendencies and absorb them into the official cult, Sol Invicta ended up looking very much like the old Saturnalia and, with time, the celebration became absorbed more or less into the Christmas/winter festive period.
Some aspects of the Saturnalia may appear as incomprehensible to our modern eyes; their origins and rites are typical of a cyclical, cataclysmic, and not linear vision of time. Universe, and history, were conceived as repeating themselves, returning incessantly to mythical ages, so that the end of a cycle (solar, annual, lunar or seasonal) would generate a new beginning; dissolution coincided with re-generation; chaos and apparent casualty resolved into a new order.
Even if conditioned by the artificial light of a materialistic life, detached from Nature, our contemporary souls are, to different degrees, still tied to this “spiritual” past. We still perceive this “end-beginning” of something during the period leading to Christmas and year end. A time simultaneously obscure and reassuring, mysterious and familiar, in which not only the Sun, but also our inner existence stops and plunges into a cosmic night and “unbounded” state of origins. An interruption which forces a re-examination of life by many who are not inclined to such reflection.
Dark hours of the soul can transform the experience of life. The sun, symbol of man’s spiritual light and energy, and winter solstice represent the possibility of regeneration for the macro and microcosms of existence, a new birth, the beginning of a new year.