How Roman Pagans Celebrated the Winter Solstice

Today is the Great Conjunction, an astrological event that will see Jupiter and Saturn align, possibly kickstarting a new era.

It also happens to be the Winter Solstice, meaning that it is also the longest night of the year.

For centuries, the solstice has been an opportunity for worship, hibernation, and renewal. "The undeniable hardship of this winter is a reminder that for much of human history, particularly in colder climates, winter was a season simply to be survived," writes Elizabeth Dias in The New York Times. "Winter is a primal time of death and loss, and a time for grief. It reminds us that darkness, not only light, is part of the recurring rhythm of what it means to be human."

Stories — be they ancient myths or trending Twitter jokes — have always carried us through. "For millenniums, during these months of darkness, humans have turned to rituals and stories to remind one another of hope and deeper truths," adds Dias. And, "All over the world, celebrations of light dot the winter darkness like stars."

And here we are, celebrating an ancient holiday in the midst of a literally and metaphorically dark winter. Here we are, retelling old myths, looking for new meanings in the stars to get us through. Here's the story of the pagans and the winter solstice.

Saturnalia: The Birth of Christmas?

Roman pagans used to celebrate the Solstice with a holiday known as Saturnalia. This holiday, sometimes thought of as a precursor of Christmas, was meant to honor the agricultural god Saturn. It was also meant to celebrate the triumph of the sun over darkness, as from here on out, the days will grow longer.

Though it worshiped one of many gods rather than Jesus, the pagan holiday had much in common with what we currently call Christmas. Mostly, it involved celebrating (a lot) and giving gifts. Work stopped for a week, rules fell out the window, households appointed head "mischief makers," and the feasts and subsequent debauchery were abundant.

In the year 336, Christian Roman rulers wanted to unite the pagans and Christians of their kingdoms. So, some historians believe, they merged aspects of Saturnalia with a celebration of the birth of Christ. Of course, the holiday's more hedonistic aspects were Christianized and sanitized. Others believe that the holiday dies natalis solis invicti (birthday of the unconquered sun), another pagan festival that occurred on December 25th, was the actual inspiration for Christmas, because it involves the worship of one shining deity—Midas in the pagan case. In general, most conclude that while Saturnalia was not the inspiration for Christmas, the two are somewhat connected.

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Saturn and the Cosmic Significance of the Solstice

In Greek mythology, Saturn was originally Chronos, the ruler of the Titans. Sometimes referred to as Father Time, sometimes associated with chaos and other times associated with the force that spins the wheels of the zodiac, he was eventually vanquished by Zeus and the Olympians. Later, Saturn became a god of seeds and sowing and was often portrayed as an old man bearing a sickle, making him a harbinger of growth and death.

What does Saturn signify in the context of the Solstice, and the current moment? "Porphyry of Tyre, a Phoenician philosopher from the 3rd century, summarized it best when he linked the Saturnalia to an emancipation towards immortality," writes Farah Abdessamad. "If our soul and being routinely die, then they never really perish (think how we go to sleep and wake up every day)."

In short, the solstice is a moment when chaos and death run rampant, but we know and have faith that life and order will return. "We bury 2020, before accepting the regeneration offered by 2021 and the sun's victory over night," adds Abdessamad. "Professor, historian and philosopher Mircea Eliade referred to this phenomenon as a repetition of Cosmos winning over Chaos in mythological cosmogonies."

The Solstice Today

Occultists and spiritualists often see the solstice as a time when the veil between us and the rest of the world grows thin. On the solstice, on this long, long night, "We are able to feel with greater ease that we are not just beings on this Earth, but beings of the Earth," says Tanaaz. In the dark, we return to the collective. We leave the illusion of our separateness behind.

Today, the solstice is celebrated by many modern pagans and Druids, who often use the holiday as a chance to gather at Stonehenge or other places.

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