Christmas, New Year’s Eve and the Saturnalia


The holiday season is upon us. We will soon be 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 some readers’ displeasure, I would like 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 A.D. 1, as was incorrectly determined by Dionysius Exiguus, a Roman abbot who lived around 550 CE.

Dionysius Exiguus, a monk from Russia who died about 544, was asked by Pope John I to set out the dates for Easter from 527 to 626. It seems that the Pope was keen to produce some order in the celebration of Easter.

Dionysius decided to begin with what he considered to be the year of Jesus’ birth. He chose the year in which Rome had been founded and determined, from the scant evidence available to him, that Jesus had been born 753 years later. That year became A.D. 1, Anno Domini 1, the First Year of our Lord.

The exact date of the birth in that year required a somewhat more convoluted argument.

Around 200 CE, Tertullian of Carthage calculated the date of Jesus’s crucifixion as March 25 on the Roman (solar) calendar. That date coincided with the contemporary belief that God had created the world on March 25.

Around the same time, Hippolytus (170–236) claimed that the date of Jesus’ birth was Dec. 25.

Dionysius filled in the logic by arguing that the savior’s perfect nature meant that he must have died and been conceived (or, more appropriately, “incarnated” into Mary’s womb) on the same date. His perfection also dictated that the date must coincide with the creation of the world on March 25.

Nine months after conception, he was born. That puts the date of birth on Dec. 25.

It’s far more likely that Jesus was born between 7 BCE and 4 BCE. References in the Bible itself determine those years. 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.

Also, 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 and protect 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. To make up for built-up inaccuracies in the old calendar, Oct. 5-14 abruptly ceased to exist that year. The day that used to be Dec. 25 is now technically January 4.

Early Christians probably celebrated the birth of Jesus in the winter for more practical reasons. 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.

Saturnalia was a time when masters 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 and was dotted with the celebration of some of Rome’s many gods. By 274 CE, the Roman Emperor Aurelian established December 25, which marked the birth of the Persian sun-god Mithras, as a holiday.

By 336, Roman Christians countered by celebrating the birth of Jesus, their Son of God, on the same day.

We preserve the Saturnalia 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 a few secular writers, notably Charles Dickens, who wrote five Christmas stories between 1846 and 1848. That’s right. “A Christmas Carol” has as much to do with today’s Christmas rituals as the determinations of religious leaders.

Let’s suppose you want to properly celebrate Saturnalia by gazing worshipfully upon Saturn, the god and planet in question. In that case, you can see him having a family reunion with his son Jupiter very low in the southwestern sky in deep evening twilight.

Their closest approach, the Great Conjunction, happened yesterday, but they are still very close to each other.

Tonight, pale-yellow Saturn is just to the right of much-brighter Jupiter. As the days pass, Jupiter will move up and to the left of Saturn. However, both planets set a bit earlier each night. In a couple of weeks, they will be too close to the setting sun to see.

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 challenging trek to a squalid stable in Bethlehem?

Over the years, scholars have proposed a bright meteor; a close conjunction of bright planets like Jupiter, Saturn, and Venus; a comet; an exploding star called a supernova; and the planet Uranus long before anybody identified it as a planet. Others have suggested 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, astronomical or atmospheric, 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 the Christmas star 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 Christmas text from Psalm 19:1-2: “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament showeth His handiwork.” Whether you celebrate Christmas, Chanukah, Eid al-Fitr, 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 heart, may your universe be filled with wonder.

By Tom Burns


Tom Burns is the former director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.

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