Christmas, New Year’s Eve and the Saturnalia


Christmas has passed, and we are in the midst of our traditional period of rest between the spiritually significant solstice celebrations like Christmas and Chanukah and the more worldly revelries of New Year’s Eve.

The juxtaposition of the two holidays may seem strange until we consider how the holidays got their starts.

Thus, at the risk of incurring the wrath of some readers, it seems a relatively safe time to point out a few “astronomical” aspects of the two holidays and the week that separates them.

Jesus of Nazareth was not born during the year we now call 1 CE or AD, as was incorrectly determined by Dionysius Exiguus, a Roman abbot who lived around 550 CE. Jesus was born between 7 BCE and 4 BCE. Those years are determined by references in the Bible itself. Augustus sent out his taxation decree in 7 BCE (Luke 2:1), and Herod, the villain in the birth story, was dead by 4 BCE.

In addition, Dec. 25 is not the day Jesus was born. In those days, shepherds “abide[d] with their flocks,” (i.e., slept out with their sheep all night) to watch for new-born lambs in the spring, not the winter.

Even if Jesus had been born on Dec. 25, we still don’t celebrate the holiday on the correct day. In 1582 Pope Gregory decreed that a new calendar be used to replace the old Roman calendar. In order to make up for built-up inaccuracies in the old calendar, Oct. 5 to 14 simply ceased to exist that year. The day that used to be Dec. 25 is now technically Jan. 4.

Early Christians probably celebrated the birth of Jesus in the winter because they already had Easter as a springtime celebration. Since Easter was the most important day of the liturgical calendar (and still is), another date had to be chosen for the birthday of Jesus.

Their choice of a date around the Winter Solstice was an excellent one. By doing so, they could encourage converts from the Roman population during late December’s Saturnalia, an important festival associated with the winter harvest.

The Saturnalia was a time when master and slaves sometimes exchanged places and the standard social order broke down. The high and the low feasted together and exchanged gifts, as we do to this very day.

The Saturnalia generally lasted a week. We preserve that tradition by bracketing our end-of-year celebration between Christmas and New Year’s Day. Eventually, the old Saturnalia became New Year’s Eve, and Christmas took on a life of its own.

The importance of Christmas waxed and waned over the centuries. However, it never even came close to Easter in that regard. In England and America, our rather conservative approach to religion meant that Christmas never really caught on in the way it has today. However, in the mid-nineteen century, Christmas went through a significant renaissance thanks to the work of a few secular writers, notably Charles Dickens. That’s right. “A Christmas Carol” has much to do with the today’s Christmas rituals as the determinations of religious leaders.

If you want to celebrate the Saturnalia properly by gazing worshipfully upon Saturn, the Titan and planet in question here, you are out of luck. He (or “it,” if you prefer) is too close to the sun to see right now.

You’ll have to settle for the god who dethroned Saturn and threw him into the outer darkness.

Bright Jupiter is visible low in the southeastern sky around 5 AM. Look for him right above the slightly less bright star Spica in the constellation Virgo. It’s a view worth getting up for.

The biggest astronomical mystery associated with Christmas has to be the star in the Biblical book of Matthew. What is that star the Magi saw that led them on a long and difficult trek to a squalid stable in Bethlehem? Over the years, scholars have proposed a bright meteor, a close conjunction of bright planets, a comet, an exploding star called a supernova, the planet Uranus long before it was identified as a planet, and even non-astronomical, atmospheric events like St. Elmo’s fire and ball lightning.

The mystery is heightened by the strange and wonderful behavior of the star: “Lo, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.”

The simple, unavoidable conclusion is that no natural phenomenon, star or otherwise, behaves in that way. Perhaps Matthew made up the story because he thought his audience would be impressed by an astronomical or astrological confirmation of the child’s messianic mission. Or perhaps it is one of the greatest and most profound miracles of all time. This writer is hardly qualified to make such a determination. For that, you must look into your own heart.

Instead, I take my text from Psalm 19:1-2: “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament showeth His handiwork.” Whether you celebrate Christmas, Chanukah, Ramadan, Kwanzaa, the Solstice or nothing at all, know this: The vault of heaven shines brightly this time of year.

To see it with a pure and open spirit is to realize that the universe is vast beyond measure and beautiful beyond words. From the glow of a single star to the enormity of a galaxy, from the cold reaches of space to the warm depths of your own heart, may your universe be filled with wonder.

Tom Burns


Tom Burns is director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.

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