Today, December 21st, is the winter solstice; in fact, last night, if you were awake and outside around 1:30am EST, you would have seen a lunar eclipse. Dies Natalis Solis Invicti or "the birthday of the unconquered sun" is an ancient Roman holiday that may not have preceded Christ's birth (though was associated with it as Christ being the "unconquered son") but Saturnalia in the month of December is older, and by the similarities between Saturnalia and Christmas, perhaps wiser.
Saturnalia was celebrated in the month of December by Romans in honor of the deity, Saturn. Saturn was the Roman god of agriculture and the harvest but was also known as the Greek God, Cronos, father of Zeus. Saturn was the son of Gaia, the earth and Uranus, the heavens. "The Golden Age of Man" is often attributed to Saturn's rule by Roman writers; the festival of Saturnalia was held around the winter solstice and was essentially a week-long feast. People wore colorful clothing, and it was a time when masters became slaves and slaves became masters.
Saturn is also associated with aging or the passage of time. The term "Golden Years" is a phrase derived from the "Golden Age" also attributed to Saturn.
In Medieval times and during the Renaissance, the planet named after the Roman god was associated with what was one of the "four temperments" by physicians of that time: melancholy. Philosophers, physicians, scholars, and scientists were thought by Medieval and Renaissance scholars to have strong placement in Saturn, giving them a bend toward both melancholy and wisdom.
Interestingly, there is a contemporary connection to these ancient beliefs: in order to gain wisdom one must earn it, usually through difficulty. Though it is possible to survive difficulty and still be a high-functioning human being, one is never the same...prone to depression, also known as, melancholy. It was also believed that those with strong Saturnal placement had difficulties with their father; the Greek name for Saturn, Cronos, includes legend of Cronos eating his own children--hence the connection to a domineering father.
Saturn was associated by early Gnostics with scripture or the letter of the law. "Saturn's Day" or Saturday--the seventh day of the Scripture--is also the holy Sabbath. Some religions believe the Sabbath begins on Friday night and ends on Saturday night; others believe the Sabbath begins on Saturday night, ending Sunday--either way, Saturday is deeply connected to the Sabbath, and apparently, to Saturn--not the planet, the Roman god.
Saturnalia was a week of drunken-orgies and merry-making; it was originally started in 217 BCE to raise the morale of a newly defeated Rome by the Carthaginians. The word "Ho" as in "Ho, ho, ho, it's Santa Claus..." is also a throw-back to Saturnalia, whose traditional greeting was "lo, Saturnalia!" which was pronounced "ho" in the Latin interjection. Things like decorating with greenery, lights and giving charity also derive from the Roman New Year tradition that followed the week of merriment during Saturnalia.
Christmas was estimated by early Christian scholars to be the birth of Christ because it was nine months after the Annunciation. The Annunciation is the day believed by Christians that Gabriel, one of God's archangels, came to the Virgin Mary and told her she would be the mother of Christ. The Annunciation also coincides with the date for Passover in the Jewish calendar; the Passover Seder was the "Last Supper," famously depicted by Leonardo Da Vinci. Like Christmas's association with the winter solstice, the Annunciation falls on the spring equinox.
There's your summary of Christmas past, or Christmas's past. Either way, in 21st century America, Christmas is known as "the best morning ever" by both children and adults. Christmas has increasingly become a cultural holiday in places like the United States. Part of that turn was influenced by retail marketing over the last 100 years. Christmas retail sales are an integral part of the global economic market. No matter what you believe or don't believe, Christmas isn't going anywhere. Without it, there'd be unimaginable economic instability.
So enjoy your Christmas cookies. Have fun opening presents with family and friends on Saturday. And even if you're a self-proclaimed "Scrooge," try to observe people at this time of year--you may soon change your tune. I was in a local store and yes, the Musak was running subliminal Christmas tunes in the background. I started to get annoyed at the obvious ploy by the retailer to pull on my Christmas-heart strings but then noticed something: every other person there was smiling while humming or singing along (I walked around the entirety of the store to solidify the evidence).
People are nicer, happier, more mindful during this time of year. I don't care if Christmas is truly Christ's birthday or if it's simply an offshoot of some pre-Christian Roman holiday made up for morale--it's nice.
And we can all use a little more "niceness" in our lives.
Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!