Even though Jesus was born during the reign of Augustus, first Roman emperor, the empire didn’t celebrate that birth until three centuries later when his birth date was moved to mid-winter to match the birth date of the sun god Mithra. The Romans already had a long tradition of celebrating the winter solstice. This celebration was called the Saturnalia. Here are three days in December, taken from my daybook, Pagan Every Day. (When I wrote this book in 2003, I wrote longer days. The publisher demanded that I reduce every day to 300 words. I edited them all down to 301 words.)
December 17: Saturnalia begins
Saturn, who was conflated with the Greek Titan, Cronus, was an ancient Latin agricultural god whose name may derive from satur, “stuffed,” or sator, “a sower”; in either case he stands for abundance. He was a working god who oversaw viniculture and farming, the king of Italy during the golden age. When Jupiter conquered him, he hid himself (latuit) in the region that came to be called Latium. The Romans said Saturn’s body lay beneath the Capitol in Rome. Because his reign brought prosperity to the city, the state treasury and the standards of the Roman legions were kept in his temple when the army was at home. Saturn’s statue was bound in woolen strips to keep him from leaving Rome.
The Saturnalia was originally a series of rural festivals—the sementivae feriae, consualia larentalia, paganalia, dies juvenalis, etc.—that gained civic importance when a military defeat in 217 BCE inspired a religious revival. After the religious ceremonies of the Saturnalia came celebration, feasting, and merriment. There was a suspension of civic work, courts and schools closed, and commerce and warfare stopped.
In addition to Saturn, the Romans honored Ops, Sol Invicta, Mithra, Consus, Juventas, and Janus. Saturnalia is echoed in today’s holiday celebrations, religious rituals, honored figures (Santa Claus, Father Time), sacred flames (candles and bonfires), greens (the decorated tree, wreaths, garlands), time off from work, gift giving, feasting, helping the less fortunate, and indulging in exuberant play.
December 19: Ops
We get our word “opulence” from the name of Saturn’s consort, the grain, fruit, and harvest goddess who is also associated with the god Consus, ruler of the “conservation” of the grain that Ops brought to her people.
It’s possible that worship of Ops has been misconstrued. One of the books I’m editing is about “affluenza.” Advertising teaches us, the author says, that shopping is not only a major pastime but an almost religious rite/right. Except now it’s a disease that has metastasized throughout the body of society. Affluenza isn’t a new idea. The Roman Senate passed sumptuary laws setting limits to what Romans could own (and show off). The laws didn’t work. Medieval monarchs, including popes, tried passing similar laws, and we know that one motivation for the Protestant Reformation was to protest against the Vatican’s wealth and greed. The robber barons of late 19th century were great opulists, and we see how their descendants—Donald Trump, Gordon Gecko, your average pop singer—live today.
But wealth is not bad. We need things to live, but we also need to spend our money wisely. I don’t know about you, but I don’t live on trust funds or stock dividends. I live thriftily. I think all pagans do. We share and recycle and have give-aways. This holiday season, let’s be Opulists. We can do magical work. When I walk I pick up any coin I see lying on the sidewalk. When I get home, I lay the coin on my Fortuna altar and say, “For those in need.” One penny isn’t much, but pennies add up. What other Opulistic work can we do? We can donate things we don’t need to shelters for people who do need them. Ops was a goddess of grain and fruit, so we can also make donations to organizations that feed people.
December 18: Saturnalia: A Christmas Carol
[Scrooge asked], “But why do spirits walk the earth, and why do they come to me?”
“It is required of every man,” [Marley’s] Ghost returned, “that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellowmen, and travel far and wide; and if that spirit goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death. It is doomed to wander through the world…and witness what it cannot share, but might have shared on earth, and turned to happiness!”
—Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol
There’s no way A Christmas Carol, which was published in 1843, can be considered a pagan classic, but if we read it closely we can see that the muscular Victorian Christianity of the book foreshadows our modern pagan belief in spiritual awakening. If we’re willing to indulge in personal and literary excavation, in fact, and to connect ideas that don’t appear to have any connection, we can find pagan applications in nearly anything we read. It just takes some knowledge of metaphysics and a nimble imagination.
In his book, Transforming Scrooge, psychotherapist Joseph D. Cusamano writes, “There is no doubt that the three…ghosts were performing intensive, brief, experiential psychospiritual therapy to free [Scrooge] from the bonds of the past.” Scrooge’s experience is like a kundalini opening. It shatters the chains of his miserable, lonely childhood and his miserly, solitary adulthood and leads him into “a new-found spiritual attitude about his own life and a caring concern for the general welfare of the planet.”
What lessons can the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future teach us? Although we pagans don’t celebrate Christmas as Christians do, we celebrate the winter holiday. We know that spirits walk upon the earth at the solstice. Just because we’re pagans, should we abandon the old, familiar holidays? We can go home to our families to celebrate Christmas.
Barbara Ardinger, Ph.D. (www.barbaraardinger.com), is a published author and freelance editor. Her newest book is Secret Lives, a novel about grandmothers who do magic. Her earlier nonfiction books include the daybook Pagan Every Day, Finding New Goddesses (a pun-filled parody of goddess encyclopedias), and Goddess Meditations. When she can get away from the computer, she goes to the theater as often as possible—she loves musical theater and movies in which people sing and dance. She is also an active CERT (Community Emergency Rescue Team) volunteer and a member (and occasional secretary pro-tem) of a neighborhood organization that focuses on code enforcement and safety for citizens. She has been an AIDS emotional support volunteer and a literacy volunteer. She is an active member of the Neopagan community and is well known for the rituals she creates and leads.
15 thoughts on “Celebrating the Winter Solstice by Barbara Ardinger”
Thanks for the historical background. Of course just because the Romans did it, we don’t have to do it. They were pagan or pre-Christian but even in the Roman empire there were differences between the official religion and the rituals of the people of the land (pagans). And there is no way the official religion of the Roman Empire can be considered feminist!!! Still it is important to know our roots. And yes instead of merely celebrating abundance, we can do what the real pagans did: share what we have with others, as you say.
There’s no way much of anything Roman can be considered feminist. Men ran the city, the senate, and the empire. Women stayed home. Gee. Does that sound familiar??
Yes, yes yes….
Reblogged this on silverapplequeen.
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Thank you kind Barbara for this great read. I’m going to pass it along to some of my favorite wise and surely teenagers. I appreciate it and You. I’m so sorry to learn of Schrödinger’s passing. Sending You Love, Ease and Warmth this blustery Winter Season.
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Merci beaucoup! I still miss my sweet kitty.
Brava! Thank you for all the lore and for your thoughtful reflections on the season. Chanukah begins today. Happy Chanukah to all. Joy and generosity throughout the Feasts of Light and into the new year.
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thanks a good write , although I dont agree with all of it , worth the read
I loved this post Barbara… and these words “If we’re willing to indulge in personal and literary excavation, in fact, and to connect ideas that don’t appear to have any connection, we can find pagan applications in nearly anything we read. It just takes some knowledge of metaphysics and a nimble imagination…” I would substitute mythological roots for pagan – not because I don’t respect this earth based religion but because this is about more than a pagan tradition…
Over many many years I have developed my own rituals based on my dreams, world mythology, experiences with Nature, and Indigenous traditions… for me the season begins in early November when we return to natural time. I bring boughs into the house and light them… this is the time of year I celebrate my love for all trees and this period peaks at winter solstice but does not end until February 2nd (Bear’s Day)… this celebration of trees and the Tree of Life brings me a quiet sense of joy and “rightness….” probably because it’s so authentic… women and trees go back to the dawn of humankind.
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Several years ago I more or less invented my own calendar on which winter begins on Samhain and the solstice is winter’s hinge or midpoint. Spring begins on Imbolc/Candlemas/Bear’s Day and the equinox is the hinge. Summer begins on Beltane and the solstice is the hinge, and autumn begins on Lammas and the equinox is the hinge. Many of the people I’ve shared this calendar with think it makes sense. So today it’s already winter. What do you think?
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That’s exactly how my calendar works as well. I adopted it when I was much younger and realized that that is why the ancients called the solstices mid-winter and mid-summer. So, yes it has been winter for me since Samhain. It all does make so much more sense than the modern calendar and seems so much more in line with a pagan way of living.
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This is fascinating to me Barbara because I pretty much did the same thing – inventing my own calendar roughly based on the Celtic wheel because it so closely follows the seasons with the exception of the Feast of the Dead. With me, November is the “space in between” and winter doesn’t begin until December at winter solstice- Although I use the Celtic wheel because it feels so right I note that Indigenous peoples pretty follow the same kind of calendar although the rituals are more fluid, exact days are not as important- and they too I discovered have that “space In between” which I thought I made up – Hah! – what we do is to tap into the Collective pre- christian traditions when we allow our intuitive selves (and in my case, dreams and Nature) to lead. Thank you so much for sharing this information with me!
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