Solstice Celebrations

Modern and Ancient Festivals of Light

Temple of Saturn
FHG Photo/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

If future archaeologists were to replay news audiotapes from the turn-of-the-21st century holidays, they would hear weekly updates on the success or failure of area merchants and editorials on how their sales figures reveal the true state of the economy. If they also had access to computer records, they might assume the legal definition of Christmas in the U.S. includes a fiscal obligation for each family to incur self-destructive debt.

Is there a connection between dwindling light and conspicuous consumption? Between the end of the year and irresponsible behavior? Certainly, there is a connection between the solstice and the presence of millions of twinkling little bulbs illuminating a sky that has been dark for too long. And there is a biological connection between cold and overindulgence in food, but even if less logical, the connection between festivities and year's end seems just as central to our behavior.

There are many winter celebrations that antedate our placement of Christmas on December 25, three of which are described on the following pages:

  1. Saturnalia
  2. Hanukkah
  3. Mithras

Holiday Extravagance

The festival of the Kalends is celebrated everywhere as far as the limits of the Roman Empire extend... The impulse to spend seizes everyone.... People are not only generous towards themselves, but also towards their fellow-men.

A stream of presents pours itself out on all sides.... The Kalends festival banishes all that is connected with toil and allows men to give themselves up to undisturbed enjoyment. From the minds of young people, it removes two kinds of dread: the dread of the schoolmaster and the dread of the stern pedagogue....

Another great quality of the festival is that it teaches men not to hold too fast to their money, but to part with it and let it pass into other hands.

Libanius, quoted in The Xmas Story Part 3

In Ancient Rome, the mythical age of Saturn's kingship was a golden age of happiness for all men, without theft or servitude, and without private property. Saturn, dethroned by his son Jupiter, had joined Janus as ruler in Italy, but when his time as earthly king was up, he disappeared. “It is said that to this day He lies in a magic sleep on a secret island near Britain, and at some future time ...

He will return to inaugurate another Golden Age.”

Janus instituted the Saturnalia as a yearly tribute to his friend, Saturn. For mortals, the festival provided a yearly symbolic return to the Golden Age. It was an offense during this period to punish a criminal or start a war. The meal normally prepared only for the masters was prepared and served first to the slaves, and in further reversal of the normal order, it was served to the slaves by the masters. All people were equal and, because Saturn ruled before the current cosmic order, Misrule, with its lord (Saturnalia Princeps), was the order of the day.

Children and adults exchanged gifts, but the adult exchange became so great a problem -- the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer -- that a law was enacted making it legal only for richer people to give them to poorer.

According to Macrobius' Saturnalia, the holiday was originally probably only one day, although he notes an Atellan playwright, Novius, described it as being seven days.

With Caesar's changing of the calendar, the number of days of the festival increased.

Another festival connected with lights in the middle of winter, gift giving, and indulgent food is the 2000-year old holiday [www.ort.org/ort/hanukkah/history.htm] Hanukkah, literally, dedication, since Hanukkah is a celebration of the re-dedication of the Temple following a purification ritual.

Following this re-dedication, in 164 B.C., the Maccabees were planning to relight the Temple's candles, but there wasn't enough unpolluted oil to keep them burning until fresh oil could be obtained.

By a miracle, the one night's worth of oil lasted eight days -- plenty of time for to obtain a new supply.

In commemoration of this event a menorah, a 9-branched candlestick, is lit each of 8 nights (using the ninth candle), amid singing and blessings. This commemoration is Hanukkah (also spelled Hanukah or Channuka / Chanukkah).

According to reader Ami Isseroff: “Channuka was originally Chag Haurim - the festival of light. This leads to the suspicion that it, too, was a solstice holiday that existed before the victory of the Maccabees, which was welded unto it.”

Dateline: 12/23/97

Mithras, Mithra, Mitra
Saturnalia may have been responsible for the pageantry of our midwinter festival, but it's Mithraism [www.uvm.edu/~classics/life/holiday.html] that seems to have inspired certain symbolic religious elements of Christmas. Mithraism arose in the Mediterranean world at the same time as Christianity, either imported from Iran, as Franz Cumont believed, or as a new religion which borrowed the name Mithras from the Persians, as the Congress of Mithraic Studies suggested in 1971.

Mithraism radiated from India where there is evidence of its practice from 1400 B.C.

Mitra was part of the Hindu pantheon* and Mithra was, perhaps, a minor Zoroastrian deity**, the god of the airy light between heaven and earth. He was also said to have been a military general in Chinese mythology.

The soldiers' god, even in Rome (although the faith was embraced by male emperors, farmers, bureaucrats, merchants, and slaves, as well as soldiers), demanded a high standard of behavior, "temperance, self-control, and compassion -- even in victory". Such virtues were sought by Christian, too. Tertullian chides his fellow Christians for unbecoming behavior:

"Are you not ashamed, my fellow soldiers of Christ, that you will be condemned, not by Christ, but by some soldier of Mithras?"
The comparison of Mithraists and Christians is not coincidental. December 25 was Mithras' birthday (or festival [ Survivals of Roman Religions p. 150]) before it was Jesus'. The Online Mithraic Faith Newsletter [no longer available] says:
"Since earliest history, the Sun has been celebrated with rituals by many cultures when it began it's journey into dominance after it's apparent weakness during winter. The origin of these rites, Mithrasists believe, is this proclamation at the dawn of human history by Mithras commanding His followers to observe such rites on that day to celebrate the birth of Mithras, the Invincible Sun."
But the actual choice of December 25 for Christmas was thought to have been made under the Emperor Aurelian* because this was the date of the Winter Solstice and was the day devotees of Mithras celebrated the dies natalis solis invicti 'birthday of the invincible sun'. [See Dating Christmas.]

Mithraism, like Christianity, offers salvation to its adherents.

Mithras was born into the world to save humanity from evil. Both figures ascended in human form, Mithras to wield the sun chariot, Christ to Heaven. The following summarizes the aspects of Mithraism that are also found in Christianity.

"Mithras, the sun-god, was born of a virgin in a cave on December 25, and worshipped on Sunday, the day of the conquering sun. He was a savior-god who rivaled Jesus in popularity. He died and was resurrected in order to become a messenger god, an intermediary between man and the good god of light, and the leader of the forces of righteousness against the dark forces of the god evil."
- Pagan Origins of Christmas

Update: 12/23/09

See: Mithraism

All this is not without controversy. In the 9th chapter of his dissertation, Aurelian, Constantine, and Sol in Late Antiquity, S.E. Hijmans rejects the attribution to Aurelian for the date of Christmas:
*"On G. Wissowa's (1912, 367) contention that the festival was instituted by Aurelian, cf. Wallraff 2001, 176-7 n. 12; Salzman 1990, 151 n. 106; Heim 1999, 643 with refs. There is no explicit evidence stating that the feast of December 25th was instituted by Aurelian. In fact the calendar of 354, supplemented by Julian's hymn to Helios, is our only conclusive evidence for an official feast day in honour of Sol on that day. On the evidence currently available we cannot exclude the possibility that, for instance, the 30 chariot races held in honor of Sol on December 25th were instituted in reaction to the Christian claim of December 25th as the birthday of Christ. In general, the extent to which late pagan festivals copied, incorporated, or responded to Christian practices, elements, and dates deserves far more attention than it has received; cf. Bowersock 1990, 26-7, 44-53."

For more on the virgin (or other) birth of Mithras, see:

  • "The Miraculous Birth of Mithras," by M. J. Vermaseren Mnemosyne, Fourth Series, Vol. 4, Fasc. 3/4 (1951), pp. 285-301

For more on modern biographies of Mithras, see:

  • "Merkelbach's Mithras," by Roger Beck. Phoenix, Vol. 41, No. 3 (Autumn, 1987), pp. 296-316

*"On the Antiquity of Vedic Culture"
Hermann Oldenberg
The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, (Oct., 1909), pp. 1095-1100

**"On Mithra's Part in Zoroastrianism"
Mary Boyce
Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, Vol. 32, No. 1 (1969), pp. 10-34
and
"Zoroastrian Survivals in Iranian Folklore"
R. C. Zaehner
Iran, Vol. 3, (1965), pp. 87-96

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Gill, N.S. "Solstice Celebrations." ThoughtCo, Feb. 18, 2017, thoughtco.com/solstice-celebrations-in-ancient-history-119073. Gill, N.S. (2017, February 18). Solstice Celebrations. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/solstice-celebrations-in-ancient-history-119073 Gill, N.S. "Solstice Celebrations." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/solstice-celebrations-in-ancient-history-119073 (accessed December 17, 2017).