The holiday season is upon us. All over the world holidays are celebrated in one way or another this time of year. There is Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and, of course, Christmas. Have you ever stopped to ask yourself why so many cultures celebrate a holiday at this time of year?
You may be surprised to know that throughout history astrology/astronomy has played a large role in Christmas. Notice how I put astrology and astronomy in the same context. In more enlightened times, those who studied the heavens were both astrologers and astronomers. And, in fact, it wasn’t that long ago. Even in the Middle Ages, Johannes Kepler, Sir Isaac Newton, and many other “scientists” also studied astrology.
In the Bible, the “three wise men” were said to know of a sacred birth based on certain stars appearing in the sky. So, exactly how were they “wise”? Well, they were wise astrologers. It wasn’t until the dark ages that astrology was driven underground and those who practiced were excommunicated, or worse. But the Church also excommunicated Galileo, Copernicus, and other scientists that disagreed with the church.
The Origins of Christmas in Western Culture
There’s no coincidence that December 25 falls conspicuously close to the first day of winter, the Winter Solstice, which usually falls on December 21 each year. The Winter Solstice is the shortest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere.
Why do we celebrate on December 25, a day filled with so much darkness? It’s because the darkest days are now behind us, and we’re starting to see more visible light in the sky. It is interesting, even though December 22 is the first day the sunlight increases, we don’t actually notice it on a sundial until December 25.
In modern times we are not so vulnerable and scared just because it’s cold and dark outside, but in ancient times this was not the case. Especially in the dark ages, many people died in winter.
Ancient Rome, Saturn, and the Sun
It’s seems that the first formal celebrations of Christmas began in ancient Rome with a festival called “Saturnalia.” This tradition seems to have begun around 217 B.C., and – yes, you guessed it – this was a celebration of the planet Saturn and his influence.
Why Saturn? He is related to the winter, the time of cold and the need for safe boundaries. Saturn is the planet of determination and progress and the things we produce through such efforts. Saturn is also the ruler of the sign Capricorn, where the Sun resides using the Tropical Zodiac at this time of year.
Saturnalia was a hedonistic festival. It actually started a week before Christmas and continued until December 24. Hundreds of years later, Saturnalia seems to have merged with another celebration called “Sol Invictus” (unconquered Sun) on December 25. This is remarkable considering the Sun seems the most conquered than at any other time. It is weakest, with the least amount light, what better time to reaffirm our relationship to the true light, and to celebrate the “unconquered Sun” within?
It is also fascinating that during Saturnalia, slaves would be served by their masters in a bit of role reversal. Masters are related to the Sun (power) and slaves are related to Saturn (hard labor).
The Christian Era
As the Roman Empire became “the Holy Roman Empire,” festivities around this time of year changed, becoming more Christian in nature. Early Christians in the Fourth Century A.D. saw an opportunity at the end of Saturnalia to bring spirituality to the masses. On December 25, after Saturnalia, they would celebrate the Nativity – the birth of Christ.
There is no evidence that the early Christians truly believed this to be Christ’s birthday. In fact, based on references in the Bible, it is now thought that Jesus was likely born in September or October.
Christmas Trees, Santa Claus, and the Modern Spin
Similar to how early Christians initiated pagans into the Nativity by extending Saturnalia, so too the Christian Church advocated the decorating of trees to be part of the Christmas celebration in the Middle Ages. Pagan celebrations long included decorating trees at this time.
Santa Claus originated from many European influences, such as St. Nicholas (from many countries). In English-speaking countries the most powerful early reference came from the poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” by Clement Clarke Moore (also called “Twas the Night Before Christmas”). This was in 1822 and was also the first time St. Nicholas was referred to as having eight reindeer, with the names he gave them.
The first time Santa Claus was depicted as a big fat man with a white beard dressed in red occurred in 1933 when the Coca-Cola Company produced that image for a Coca-Cola ad. Quite a history. So, as we celebrate this season, may we be thankful for the prosperous and safer times we live in and give reverence to stars that guide us and the Sun and Earth that feeds us.