Thursday, November 19, 2015

Winter Solstice Celebrations: Roman Saturnalia and Modern Christmas

Winter Solstice Celebrations: 
Roman Saturnalia and Modern Christmas
(Photos and images from except as noted.)
This is the second blog-article about Ancient Beliefs in Modern Culture. See the first blog-article at: The Persistence of Ancient Beliefs in Modern Culture
While the celebration of Christmas is clearly associated in some manner with the winter solstice, why does it occur a few days after the solstice? And why is there an informal seven day period of celebration between Christmas and New Year's?
"Myth changes while custom remains constant; men continue to do what their fathers did before them, though the reasons on which their fathers acted have been long forgotten. The history of religion is a long attempt to reconcile old custom with new reason, to find a sound theory for an absurd practice."
Sir James George Frazer, The Golden Bough, 1922.
I asked myself these questions and a month later after going down many roads on the information superhighway, I believe I found much of the answer. But in order to do that, I had to research ancient astronomy, Roman festivals and Christian traditions along with a detailed understanding of different calendars and also the continuing Roman legacy that is still part of our daily lives.

I also was curious about this time because it is a pivotal moment when one year ends and a new one begins. On Christmas Day almost all stores and businesses close in the US, for example -- even Walmart. In addition there is a profound feeling that this time period is different from any other point in the year, an emotion that is hard to define but nevertheless quite real.

But to really understand I felt I needed to put myself in the shoes of Romans thousands of years ago -- away from our modern scientific instruments,  precise clocks, electric lights, centrally heated homes and ample food at the local supermarket. 

Why did I focus on Rome, you might ask? Our winter holiday season comes directly from Rome. For example, the date for Christmas was officially decreed by a pope in 350 CE. 

"In 350 AD Pope Julius I declared December 25 the official date" for Christmas.

Furthermore, prior to the Roman adoption of Christianity, there was a Roman winter solstice celebration that lasted about a week and involved gift giving.

When I did imagine myself in Roman shoes, I saw Rome as a very dark city at this darkest time of the year -- almost pitch black when the moon was not out. It was a city and culture that was ruled by a number of gods with mysterious powers. In addition the Roman experience, even their perception of the solstice, was quite different from ours.


The calendar we use today is essentially the same Roman calendar that Julius Caesar created over 2000 years ago. 

This innovative solar calendar was quite remarkable for the time as it ignored the cycles of the moon and instead created a way to stay in perfect sync -- well almost perfect as Pope Gregory XIII had to tweak it 15 centuries later -- with the seasonal movement of the sun and the solstices and equinoxes. This was very different from the earlier moon based lunisolar calendars when the months drifted from year to year until a leap-month was added to bring the calendar back in line with the sun's position. 

In addition because the Julian calendar was solar based, it emphasized the sun -- making the sun central to the Roman culture. 

And it was also clear to me, that just as temples in Rome were holy places, in a culture that was centered around the sun (and even the worship of the sun at times) the solstice period -- when the sun almost disappeared -- was considered a sacred point in time.

In fact most of our time keeping comes from Roman culture: all our months have Roman names and the point at which the old year ends and the new year begins was decided by the Romans -- as this transition could have occurred at any point during the yearly cycle.  In addition the words solstice (Latin: solstitium = sun still) and equinox (Latin: aequinoctium = equal night) for the four key points of the year are Latin based. Virtually every town of any size in the US has a clock with Roman numerals for the hours. So it should be no surprise that our modern end of the year festival would have Roman roots, as we have inherited our time keeping from Roman traditions. For a more detailed explanation see notes at the end of this blog.

Then I remembered something that our local TV weather man pointed out. While scientifically the solstice occurs on a specific day, the days just before and after the solstice are almost the same length. This means that, on average, there was a week long period of the shortest days, ones that are only a few seconds apart in duration. In a civilization without a quite accurate way to measure time, these days would have appeared to be the same length.

To get exact data, I looked up the length of the days during the solstice at Rome's latitude to see how the declining winter sun would have been seen. You can see the length of the days for the current winter solstice in 2015 in the chart below.
Screen grab of the chart of daylight hours in Rome 
during the winter solstice in 2015 from the URL listed next.

You can see it for yourself at this URL for the current winter solstice in 2015.

And this brings up a crucial point. According to my research the Romans could not determine the exact day of the solstice in real time, but only after the fact. However, because they were able to pinpoint the exact day after the fact, they could affirm the accuracy of their calendar. At the end of the year they would, however, know that the solstice did occur within their celebrated week-long time period -- and that was all they needed to know.


It is important to note that at the winter solstice (Latin: brumale solstitium) the sun does not move, in fact the word solstice means just that. It comes from the Latin 'solstitium' meaning "point at which the sun seems to stand still" ( While modern science says this happens only on one particular day and after that the days get longer, this is not quite true. The length of the shortest day and longest night remain almost the same (within a few seconds) for about week at the latitude of Rome.

"...the sun appears to halt in its incremental journey across the sky and change little in position during this time."

The following method was almost certainly used by the Romans and was how Ptolemy and ancient astronomers could determine the exact day of the solstice after the fact, but not in real time.
"It is most likely, then, that equinoxes and solstices were determined by observing noon solar altitudes for a series of days before and after the events. [ED: my emphasis]"
"When the Sun is crossing the meridian at noon, it is relatively easy to measure its altitude, and then knowing the geographical latitude, to compute the declination. From the declination, it is easy to compute the Sun’s position on the ecliptic (the longitude), and we know that Hipparchus knew how to do it. But it is only at noon that such an easy determination is possible. It is then fairly straightforward to estimate the time that the Sun’s declination reaches some specific targeted value: 0° for an equinox, and maximum or minimum for a solstice."
"That series of daily altitude measurements were used to determine the time of cardinal events can hardly be doubted...Especially for the solstices, it is essentially the only viable option for achieving ¼ day accuracy. [ED: my emphasis]"
Dennis Duke, Four Lost Episodes in Ancient Solar Theory, Journal for the History of Astronomy, 39, (2008)  
"The solstice time is not easy to determine. The changes in Solar declination become smaller as the sun gets closer to its maximum/minimum declination. The days before and after the solstice, the declination speed is less than 30 arcseconds per day which is less than 1/60 of the angular size of the sun...This difference is ... impossible [to detect] with more traditional tools like a gnomon or an astrolabe [ED: ancient tools the Romans would have used]. It is also hard to detect the changes on sunrise/sunset azimuth due to the atmospheric refraction changes. Those accuracy issues render it impossible to determine the solstice day based on observations made within the 3 (or even 5) days surrounding the solstice without the use of more complex tools. [ED: not available to the Romans]"

In our modern scientific age, we understand the laws that govern planetary motion, so that we are certain the sun will return each year from its lowest point at the winter solstice. But to the ancients this low ebb in the sun's travel must have been quite frightening. It is believed that Neolithic people, for example, felt the need to help the sun return with rituals during which they used sympathetic magic, such as lighting fires, to aid the sun in its return.

So when I looked at the numbers -- the length of the days before and after the day of the solstice -- I arrived at a probable reason for the week-long Roman festival. The period of short days lasted about a week every year -- and because the day of the solstice can vary from December 20-23, it meant that the festival would have always included the precise day of the solstice no matter what.


Now that leaves the question of why December 25 was so important.

According to Roman tradition December 25 was usually the first day after the week-long solstice period when days began to noticeably lengthen and this could be determined in real time with the existing Roman science. To the ancients it would have been seen as a mythical rebirth of the sun and because of this the day was treated with great reverence. After a week-long period of short solstice days when the sun was at its lowest ebb, the clearly visible lengthening of days and reversal of the sun's movement was a time for great celebration and rejoicing.
This is similar to the way the new moon was treated by ancient peoples. Scientifically the new moon is when the moon is in full shadow ("when the Moon and the Sun have the same ecliptical longitude"). However, "in non-astronomical contexts [ED: e.g. religious contexts], new moon refers to the first visible crescent of the Moon, after conjunction with the Sun...the first crescent marks the beginning of the lunisolar calendars such as the Hebrew calendar."
"December 25 was commonly indicated [ED: in Roman times] as the date of the winter solstice [ED: which the like new moon discussed above had a different meaning in ancient times], with the first detectable lengthening of daylight hours."


Having done the math for the winter solstice, I then wanted to understand the Roman mythical rituals that were related to the winter solstice.  So I researched the annual Roman solstice festival known as Saturnalia which was celebrated during this period. 

When I started this article I was aware the Romans held a festival at the time of the winter solstice that included the practice of gift giving and some other similarities to our contemporary Christmas. Yet, to my surprise, there were at least fourteen similar customs and symbols -- so many it is highly improbable the similarities are coincidental.

Roman depictions of the god Saturn, an old man with a full beard, who is, among other things, the god of time. He holds a sickle which is a symbol of harvest and bounty and also death and destruction. Bas-relief, 2nd century CE.

The festival was named after the Roman god Saturn, the god of time. The theme of time was key as the solstice marked a critical point when the sun was at its lowest ebb. This time must have been frightening and auspicious to many ancients as it appeared that the sun might disappear entirely. A number of activities occurred during during the solstice period at the Temple of Saturn, the oldest temple of the Roman Forum.

In this 18th century depiction of the god Saturn, the sickle has turned into a scythe, as that had become the normal tool for harvesting grain. Saturn now had wings, as wings had become a symbol for time. Nevertheless, Saturn was still seen as an old man with a full beard.

The Latin phrase "tempus fugit" or "time flies" is something we still say today. 
This photo is of a graveyard fixture with an hour glass surrounded by winged time.

The Temple of Saturn is on the right and is the oldest temple in the Roman Forum.
Because there had been an ancient alter even before 497 BCE, 
it is probable that this festival was much older.
"It was among the oldest cult sites in Rome, and had been the location of "a very ancient" altar even before the building of the first temple in 497 BCE."  
The Roman Saturnalia festival in late December was the most important festival in Rome and went on for almost 1000 years, starting in 497 BCE -- about 500 years before the beginning of  Christianity and about 800 years before Christianity became the official Roman religion. Saturnalia was celebrated throughout the Roman provinces and the empire. Most historians say it ran from December 17-23 or 24 -- a period which, as I have said, usually included several days before the astronomical date of the winter solstice and a few days after.

Saturnalia was one of about forty festivals in Rome -- so that fact that it was the most popular and was celebrated for seven days is quite significant. Read more about these festivals in this link:

Drawing from the Roman Calendar of Philocalus, dated 354 CE, 
depicting the month of December with Saturnalian activities.  


Like today schools, businesses and government offices closed. Now, for example, Christmas Day is the only day that Walmart is closed.

And like today people exchanged gifts, children were given toys, candles were lit, special foods were prepared, and people sang and ate too much. Flamboyant dress was allowed along with wild parties (think of ugly Christmas sweaters and today's wild Christmas office parties or those at New Year's).

There was even a customary greeting or shout (not unlike 'Ho-Ho-Ho', 'Merry Christmas' or 'Happy New Year').
"The phrase "io Saturnalia" was the characteristic shout or salutation of the festival...The interjection is pronounced either with two syllables (a short i and a long o) or as a single syllable (with the i becoming the Latin consonantal j and pronounced yo). It was a strongly emotive ritual exclamation or invocation..."

Even decorations were similar to those of today.
"Saturnalia decorations consisted of great swathes of evergreen and holly. Gold and silver star and sun symbols were hung throughout the house and used to decorate outdoor trees."

Like today, this period was a festival of lights.

"Macrobius (5th century AD) presents an interpretation of the Saturnalia as a festival of light leading to the winter solstice."

And frantic holiday preparations were similar.
"It is now the month of December, when the greatest part of the city is in a bustle...Everywhere you may hear the sound of great preparations, as if there were some real difference between the days devoted to Saturn and those for transacting business."
Seneca, Epistolae

Many Romans felt it was the most wonderful time of the year.
"For how many years shall this festival abide! Never shall age destroy so holy a day! While the hills of Latium remain and father Tiber, while thy Rome stands and the Capitol thou hast restored to the world, it shall continue." 
Statius, Roman author, 1st century CE
And today?
Lyrics to the popular Christmas Song:
"It's the most wonderful time of the year
(Most wonderful time)
With the kids jingle-belling
And everyone telling you
Be of good cheer
It's the most wonderful time of the year"


Why did Saturnalia die out and its traditions become part of our holiday season? Quite simply, it was banned and that ban was strictly enforced.

About 40 years after Pope Julius I made December 25 the official date for Christmas in 350 CE,  all pagan Roman religious holidays were prohibited by the decrees of Emperor Theodosian. At the same time many temples from these earlier religions were destroyed.
"Between 389-391 he [ED: Emporer Theodosius I]  emanated the infamous "Theodosian decrees," which established a practical ban on paganism; visits to the temples were forbidden, remaining Pagan holidays abolished, the eternal fire in the Temple of Vesta in the Roman Forum extinguished, the Vestal Virgins disbanded..."
Later the penalties became even more severe: people who practiced the customs of the old religions could have their property seized and they could be executed. So this ban ended any overt or public practice of the old traditions, forcing these practices to go underground or to find expression as part of a Christian ritual.
"Emperor Marcian decreed, in the year 451, that those who continued to perform the pagan rites would suffer the confiscation of their property and be condemned to death. Marcian also prohibited any attempt to re-open the temples and ordered that they were to remain closed."
Yet folk and older traditions when banned have a way of going underground without really going away. This can be seen in China today. The government has recently allowed the practice of Chinese folk religions after more than almost two centuries of discrimination. Suddenly the numbers of people involved in these customs have tripled to almost a billion and traditions -- that were perhaps thousands of years old and were never forgotten but passed down in private for hundreds of years -- reemerged. Read more about this on Wikipedia at:

Virtually every authority I have read believes that many of our modern traditions during Christmas come from Saturnalia but they are celebrated in a Christian context. The week long Roman Saturnalia celebration before December 25 has now turned into an extended celebration during the days after December 25, a time period that is more in harmony with Christian thinking, for example.

Saturnalia "has left its traces and found its parallels in great numbers of medieval and modern customs, occurring about the time of the winter solstice." 
William Warde Fowler, The Roman Festivals of the Period of the Republic, 1899.
"Saturn’s great festival, the Saturnalia, became the most popular of Roman festivals, and its influence is still felt in the celebration of Christmas and the Western world’s New Year.
 Encyclopedia Britannica


The fact that earlier rituals merged with later customs should not be surprising. We know, for example, that the tradition of the Christmas tree came from non-Christian beliefs.

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica,
"The use of evergreen trees, wreaths, and garlands to symbolize eternal life was a custom of the ancient Egyptians, Chinese, and Hebrews. Tree worship was common among the pagan Europeans and survived their conversion to Christianity in the Scandinavian customs of decorating the house and barn with evergreens at the New Year..."

From a Biblical Website:
"More recent studies have shown that many of the holiday’s modern trappings do reflect pagan customs...The Christmas tree, for example...
From the mid-fourth century on, we do find Christians deliberately adapting and Christianizing pagan festivals. A famous proponent of this practice was Pope Gregory the Great, who, in a letter written in 601 C.E. to a Christian missionary in Britain, recommended that local pagan temples not be destroyed but be converted into churches, and that pagan festivals be celebrated as feasts of Christian martyrs."

A contemporary church with Christmas trees inside the church.


  • Why the winter solstice does not always happen on the same day
As with the June solstice, the December solstice's varying dates are mainly due to the calendar system. The Gregorian calendar, which is used in most western countries, has 365 days in a common year and 366 days in a leap year. Since a year is actually 365 1/4 days, the date of the solstice will move a bit in relation to the calendar. Read more about this at:

The exact astronomical time for the winter solstice could/can take place on a number of December days, from Dec. 20-23 -- although most often on December 21 or 22. Since the date for the week-long Saturnalia festival was generally listed as December 17-23, this was very smart as it meant that the winter solstice occurred during the festival no matter what. Also Romans could be reasonably sure that December 25 would be a date when the days began to lengthen.
  • The solar calendar and fixed dates
Because the Julian calendar was solar and the same every year (unlike a lunisolar calendar), it meant that certain annual dates became 'fixed' even though there might be some astronomical variation. For example, December 25 might not always be the day with the  "first detectable lengthening of daylight hours" but on average it was -- so this day was designated and became a date that people could count on and plan for.
Also because the Julian calendar was a 'solar' calendar, it emphasized the movement of the sun and ignored the phases of the moon. This meant that the winter solstice would have been especially important to a culture that used the sun as its point of reference.
  • About the term 'solstice' for historians and researchers 
There can be some variation in the meaning of the word 'solstice' in Roman times. The word solstice may have meant the time period of the astronomical solstice and/or the first longer day after the sun's standstill -- just as the 'new moon' has two different meanings depending on the context (see explanation above). So when looking at Roman sources this should be kept in mind. In addition before the Julian calendar, a lunisolar calendar was in use, so any date from that time period is hard to pinpoint in relation to the Julian calendar. Also the Julian calendar itself was off by one day every one hundred years, so this 'drift' needs to be taken into account when researching the winter solstice, until the drift was corrected by Pope Gregory XIII in the 15th century.
  • Pagan elements that are part of today's world
Some people might be surprised that 'pagan' practices and ideas, such as the customs of Saturnalia, are still part of our modern celebrations. But there are many holdovers from earlier eras. The first six months of our calendar, for example, are based on Roman gods and festivals. For example, January is named for the Roman god Janus and June for the most powerful Roman goddess, Juno. And the last day of our week, Saturday, comes from the Roman god Saturn -- indicating an end of the work week, just as Saturnalia indicated the end of the year. 

Other days of our week are named for Norse gods who were equivalent to Roman gods in a manner known as interpretatio germanica.

Many mythical elements are very much part of the winter solstice and Christmas celebrations. Santa is a mythical figure who flies through the air -- and incorporates many of the themes found in Saturnalia and other ancient celebrations at this time of year.
  • Days of the week
"The Germanic peoples adapted the system introduced by the Romans but glossed their indigenous gods over the Roman deities (with the exception of Saturday) in a process known as interpretatio germanica [ED: i.e., Germanic interpretation]."
This is the second blog-article about Ancient Beliefs in Modern Culture. See the first blog-article at: The Persistence of Ancient Beliefs in Modern Culture