As part of the Yule Series, it becomes necessary to study the importance of the sun and its worship in ancient culture. In doing so, we can thus gain a better understanding of how the worship of the sun created the festivals which eventually played a role in the development of our modern-day celebrations.Sun worship goes back thousands of years, and can be found in a wide diversity of cultures all around the world. People have worshiped a solar deity for all of recorded history, and thus many belief systems have formed around such worship. Indeed, solar worship is a possible origin of henotheism (devotion to a single god while accepting the existence of other gods), and ultimately the creation of monotheism (belief in one god only).
However, for the sake of this post, we are going to focus on Roman and Greek cultures – their ancient pagan traditions and how those traditions may have indeed paved the way for the later Christian celebration we know as Christmas.
In Greek mythology, the sun was personified as Helios, who was imagined as a handsome god crowned with the shining halo of the sun, who drove a chariot across the sky each day. As time passed, Helios became increasingly identified with the god of light, Apollo. In Roman mythology, the equivalent of Helios was Sol – Latin for the word “sun” and of course, it is from this word that we get “solstice.” In fact, Helios was sometimes also known as Sol Indiges during Roman Republic times (believed to have lasted from approximately 500 BC to 25 BC) and was later called Sol Invictus during the 2nd and 3rd centuries.
Sol Invictus (“the Unconquered Sun”) or, more fully, Deus Sol Invictus (“the Unconquered Sun God”) was the late Roman state sun god. He was part of a religious path created by Roman emperor Aurelian in the year 274, which continued until the abolition of paganism in the Roman empire by the emperor Flavius Theodosius. Also known as Theodosius the Great, this emperor ruled the Roman Empire from 379 to 395, and is known for making Christianity the only legitimate imperial religion, thus ending state support for the prior traditional pagan beliefs and practices.
The title of Sol Invictus was applied to at least three distinct divinities during the later times of the Roman Empire: Sol, Mithras, and El-Gabal. On December 25th, the Romans would hold a festival known as Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, “the birthday of the unconquered sun.” By using the title of Sol Invictus, the Romans could thus worship several different solar deities collectively. Under the former Julian calendar, introduced by Julius Caesar in 45 BC, the Winter Solstice fell on December 25th, thus it was the day when the Sun proved itself to be “unconquerable.” Under the modern-day Gregorian calendar, the solstice has been moved to December 21st, although it sometimes occurs on the 22nd. Some scholars believe that the Sol Invictus festival is the source of the December 25th date of Christmas, especially since Jesus Christ is viewed as “the sun of righteousness” or “the son of light.” However, recent Christian sources suggest that the identification of Christ’s birthday with December 25th actually predates the Sol Invictus festival.
Now we come to yet another Roman festival believed to have influenced modern-day holiday celebrations: Saturnalia. Saturnalia was the feast at which the Romans commemorated the dedication of the temple of the god Saturn, the Roman deity of agriculture, harvest, and time. It originally took place on the 17th of December, but over the years it was expanded to a whole week, ending on the 23rd of December.
Saturnalia became one of the most popular Roman festivals. It was marked by tomfoolery and reversal of social roles, in which slaves and masters would switch places – with masters serving their slaves. Schools and courts were closed, and the whole community would give itself up to feasting, gambling and drinking. It was also a time for exchanging gifts – particularly of wax candles (also known as cerei) and earthenware figurines known as sigillaria.
Saturnalia continued to be celebrated up until around the end of the fourth century. It was then moved to January, where it was merged into the festival of the Kalends of January, yet another significant part of the Roman Midwinter celebrations.
Indeed, there were many Roman Midwinter celebrations which were occasions for feasting, dancing, and music… as well as gift-giving. The fourth-century writer Libanius described such festivals in terms that might as easily be applied to the modern celebrations of Christmas:
The impulse to spend seizes everyone…
People are not only generous themselves, but also towards their fellow men. A stream of presents pours itself out on all sides…
The Kalends festival banishes all that is connected with toil, and allows men to give themselves up to undisturbed enjoyment.
From the minds of young people it removes two kinds of dread: the dread of the schoolmaster and the dread of the stern pedagogue.
The slave also it allows, as far as possible, to breath the air of freedom…
Another great quality of the festival is that it teaches men not to hold too fast to their money, but to part with it and let it pass into other hands.