In year 336, Flavius Valerius Aurelius Constantinus, better known as Constantine I or Constantine the Great declared 25th of December to be observed as the day when Jesus Christ was born. There is a lot of speculation about the exact date of birth of Jesus Christ and it is hard to back up with proof. That is, we don’t really know neither the day nor the year, but what we do know, is that before Christ was even born a few very important pagan traditional festivals were celebrated around 25th of December:
One, called Saturnalia, was held in the honour of Saturn, the God of Agriculture and many other things, such as destruction, liberation, periodic renewal (similar jobs as the ones held by the older god Moksha, from the Sanskrit tradition). Saturnalia was taking place roughly from 17 to 23 of December. This very famous Roman festival was celebrating time, just like we do today at the end of the year, when we look back to what we did and we look forward to what we want to do.
In fact, the Romans and the Thracians had a designated god for looking both in the past and in the future, who is actually my favourite god, Janus Bifrons (which literally means two foreheads). He was the god of gates, spatiality, doorways, passages and also of time, the one who gives January its name.
Back to December, it was apparently the month of mischief: the festival of Saturnalia was well known for role reversals, free speech, gift-giving and revelry. I find it fascinating that I heard of a similar tradition around the Maori New Year, which made me wonder if it is a real tradition or something brought in stories by missionaries, yet again this could be the subject of another blog.
Another festival called Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, the days of the birth of the invincible Sun is also controversial, some attributing it to the birth of Mithras, the Persian god of light, started on 25 of December and lasting through January 1st.
Now this is really interesting because why should the 25th be the day when the God of Light /Sun was re-born when it make sense to celebrate on the 21st, (+/- 1day around that date) which is the day of the winter solstice? But, as The Frank Andrews pointed out one day there is more than one answer to this:
First of all it could be a calendar error, we know that in those times measuring was not that accurate. Yet some of our ancestors made extraordinary sanctuaries where the position of the Sun could have been measured with precision, such is the Stonehenge sanctuary or this one above from Sarmisegetuza.
However when Julius Caesar introduced the Julian Calendar in 45 BC, December 25 was approximately the date of the solstice. So December 25 was also considered to be the date of the winter solstice, which the Romans called bruma (frost in Dacian), the day the Sun proved itself to be “unconquered” despite the previous shortening of daylight hours.
Another hypothesis, was that the celebration was in fact observed a few days after the solstice, regardless of the date of it. I find that fascinating, because it’s about observational astronomy, which makes total sense to me. Relearning how to look at the stars means going outside, doing some stargazing, instead of doing literature research online and watching Netflix even when it’s about space. It’s incredible how many people have said to me over the years that they don’t really look at the stars (see the Matariki debate). In modern times, we can do all of the above and stargaze as well.
So I’d like to think that maybe this story could have originated before the time when people built sanctuaries to help them measure time. Imagine life in the Central and Northern Europe anytime between 2-11,000 years ago, they had very cold climate in winter, temperatures dropping to negative, snow covering everything and the worst season to survive through was wintertime. The Moon would have been an unreliable marker to tell the seasons, even though the Moon must have been humankind’s first timekeeper. I’d also like to believe that these people, our ancestors, must have been avid stargazers. They left us numerous legends about the night sky, that would make Netflix series look pale in comparison, and in fact many Netflix series were written with inspiration from those stories.
It could have been very likely that people looked at the Sun to mark the approximate middle of wintertime. Why would you need to tell the middle of wintertime and why not the middle of summertime, or both, you might ask? I believe it had to do with survival, winter covered those parts of the world by a thick blanket of snow; winter was the time when people relied on food gathered in autumn, and supplemented it with animal proteins, which would help them survive the cold. So it makes sense to me they sought to measure winter solstice – to understand how to provision food, rather than doing the same thing for summer when the food was plenty. After solstice you’d know there be two more cycles of the Moon and then spring would come.
A few days later
As the Earth orbits the Sun, there is a subtle change in where the Sun rises and sets every day. This is in fact a cyclical change, a pattern that repeats every year: as seasons’ change, the Sun’s position will be lurking sideways, little by little, along the horizon. It will do that until it will reach the northernmost point and then it will start going back, journeying towards the southernmost point – just like a pendulum. Maori thought that the Sun (Tamanui Te Ra) had two wives, Hine Raumati (the summer woman) and Hine Takurua (the winter woman) and so that’s how they explained this shift, they thought he would go to spend time with each of them.
So if you were the Chief Astrologer/ Druid / Grand Priest and your job / head depended on knowing exactly when the days are getting longer again, you would keep a close eye on the rising /setting Sun. You would then look to see when the Sun would rise twice from approximately the same spot, on the solstice and next day after the solstice, say 21 and 22 of December. By the 23rd you would note the Sun would start sneaking in the opposite direction, if you were not sure you would come back for one more day. Just in case. So on the 24th of December, looking again, now you could be absolutely sure that the shortest day of the year had gone, which is why this date could have been so important, people would be happy that the worst had passed. The shortest day of the year also known as the Winter Solstice means in Latin “sol” – “Sun” and “sistere” – “when the Sun stands still”.
The Sun it’s been doing this for about 4.5 billion years but of course we only started to notice it only about 11,000 years ago. We don’t really understand our past a lot of times, hence all these explanations that people try to come up with, the festive season and the shopping spree, could have originated from a time when people had little resources. We sometimes forget why we do things but we can look at them with a critical eye. Most of important festivals in the ancient central European world were celebrated just around and after the solstice. The days were very short, the nights were long, temperatures low and work in the field was done for the year and TV was not invented yet. What else was there to do?
Into the future
This picture of the Cathedral of Salamanca astronaut, grabbed my attentions for two reasons: 1. Salamanca is at the antipodes of Wellington, NZ, where we live, and 2. this was an approved modern addition to the Cathedral. Hopefully our offsprings will have an easier time deciphering this than we do when we are thinking about Christmas and winter solstices celebrations.
Clear Skies and Happy Winter Solstice!
P.S. – the Solstice on Mars
Since I also believe that in the future we will go to Mars, for the record, here is a picture of the solstice on Mars:
The rover Spirit the Martian sunset from Gusev Crater on April 23, 2005 (note that a Martian year is twice as long as a year on Earth so the dates are Earth dates). Using data from images such as this, scientists have learned that twilight on Mars is longer than on Earth, lasting for up to two hours before sunrise or after sunset.