Today, December 23 is the day mentioned in the TV comedy Seinfeld as Festivus, a holiday for those who don’t ascribe to any of the traditional ones for this season: “Festivus for the rest of us.” The script writers may or may not have been aware that the 23rd was the last day of the Saturnalia, the weeklong period of feasting, rabble-rousing, and gift-giving that the pre-Christian Romans so enjoyed. It was, of course, originally a solstice celebration. The solstice marked the onset of winter in the Northern hemisphere; everywhere it was celebrated with rituals and feasts. Cattle and other farm animals commonly were slaughtered at this time so that they wouldn’t have to be fed through the winter months; accordingly, more meat for the feasts was on hand than at any other time of year. Besides, in those days, fattening up for the winter wasn’t such a bad idea if you could do it; some lean months might loom ahead.
In 46 BC Julius Caesar somewhat arbitrarily calibrated his new calendar so that the solstice fell on December 25, but no one bothered to adjust the date of the Saturnalia. When a sun cult (Sol Invictus – the unconquerable sun) came to prominence a couple centuries later in what was still pre-Christian Rome, though, December 25 was chosen for the celebration of the Dies Natalis (birthday) of the sun. It was also the birthdate of Mithras, demigod of a martial cult of Persian origin popular with the Roman legions. The Christians, sensibly, often chose existing days of celebrations for their own holidays, and December 25 was a natural for Christmas. For these and other reasons, the Puritans who settled New England did not celebrate Christmas, claiming (with some justice) it had pagan origins – they waged the first “war on Christmas,” to borrow a phrase currently in the news. The Puritans didn’t begin to ease up on this until the 19th century, and some never did.
Julius’ calendar wasn’t quite accurate. It calculated the year at 365.25 days instead of the more nearly correct 365.242; so, it drifted out of synch with the solar year by three days every four centuries. In the 1500s, the scholar Aloysius Lilius devised a simple formula to correct the problem: leap days are dropped from years evenly divisible by 100 unless they are also evenly divisible by 400. So, 1900 was not a leap year but 2000 was. Pope Gregory adopted it in 1582, also chopping 10 days from that year’s calendar so as to re-set it to Roman times. Yet, for some reason, he chose not to reset back to the original 46 BC start date of the Julian calendar (which would have been 13 or 14 days) but to the Council of Nicea of 425 AD. Why is anybody’s guess, but it is possible, at least in part, that he wanted to dissociate Christmas from the solstice. The Puritans, unsurprisingly, rejected the Gregorian calendar. Other Protestants resisted for a while also, but by the 18th century they by and large grudgingly accepted it for its greater accuracy; the
including the American colonies, switched over in 1752.
A dozen or so friends are stopping by my home this Christmas. Whatever the day’s origins, and whatever personal or religious meanings any person chooses to associate with that day or this time of year, I’m just happy to have another excuse to get together with friends, exchange a few presents, and overeat. I’ve shed the extra pounds from the turkey at Thanksgiving, and it is time to put them back on.
There is one Saturnalian tradition I would like to revive, however, and I’ll see whether the idea goes over. One of the party (convivium) attendees was chosen by lot to be prince (Saturnalicius princeps). He or she could issue commands, which generally were prankish: dance on the table, dump a pail of water on another guest’s head, sing in a squeaky voice with a bag on your head. That sort of thing. On second thought, considering the usual line-up of guests at my parties, maybe that’s not such a good idea.