Saturnalia: the ancient feast of the solstice

the origin of Christmas and Carnival in the ancient Latin celebrations

The longest night of the year is celebrated as a turning point by all cultures: the gradual lengthening of the hours of light goes hand in hand with gemmation, the first buds on the trees, the promise of rebirth, a metaphor forged by associating the astronomical phenomenon with the celebration of birth, usually the birth of a divine creator.

At Yule the ancient Germanic and Scandinavian peoples celebrated the death of the Old and the birth of the Baby Sun; in China Dongzhì is the day when Yin reaches its zenith and Yang its nadir: from this day Yang begins to grow again favouring the development of all living beings. The Persians commemorated the birth of the god Mithras, in India the celebrated that of Pancha Ganapati (the elephant god).

The ancient Latins celebrated the birth of Saturn, the chief god of the ancient pantheon, later ousted by Jove (and commemorated with the Saturnalia) and the god of time (to which his Greek name Chronos bears witness). Here, however, the feast was more akin to Carnival and not to Christmas and was a period of feasting during which social norms were upended and the slaves took their master's place ("fool's day"), and were declared "princeps" following desecrating, blasphemous rituals. During the imperial period, thanks to traditions imported from the east, the birthday of the emperor ("natalia") became important and Emperor Heliogabalus had it coincide with the feast of the Sol Invictus; on the 25th December 274, in Rome, the Emperor Aurelian consecrated the temple to the Sol Invictus with a festivity known as Dies Natali Solis Invicti which marked the end of the Saturnalia.

Placing the birth of Christ on the 25th of December has long been a matter of controversy also because it involved shifting the date of the celebration of the Dionysian feasts of Carnival; it was only in 337, actually, that Pope Julius I established the 25th of December as the official Christmas, while for St. Cyprian the birth of Christ actually took place on the 28th March, for St. Hippolytus on the 23rd April, for Clement Alexandrine on the 20th May or 6th of January. Among those who sustain these theses we find Pope Benedict XVI, who, in 2006, wrote that the world where the Feast of Christmas came to the fore was dominated by a sentiment very similar to ours [...]. It was decided that on the 25th December, a day at the centre of winter solstice, be celebrated as the recurring annual birth of the light which is reborn after all its sunsets [...] This era, when some Roman emperors tried to provide their subjects, amid the inexorable fall of the ancient deities, with a new faith, the cult of the unvanquished sun, coinciding with the time when the Christian faith held out its hand to Graeco-Roman man. This faith found one of its most dangerous enemies in the cult of the sun. This sign, in fact, was placed too clearly before men, in a much more evident and enticing way than the sign of the cross, with which the Christian heralds proceeded. Nevertheless, the faith and the invisible light of the latter prevailed over the visible message with which ancient paganism had tried to assert itself. Very soon the Christians claimed the 25th of December, the birthday of unvanquished light for themselves, and celebrated it as the birthday of Christ, the day when they found the true light of the world

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