How Christians co-opted the winter solstice

Christmas has many pagan and secular traditions that early Christians incorporated into this new holiday.

Saturnalia by Antoine Callet
  • Christmas was heavily influenced by the Roman festival of Saturnalia.
  • The historical Jesus was not born on December 25th as many contemporary Christians believe.
  • Many staple Christmas traditions predated the festival and were tied into ancient pagan worship of the sun and related directly to the winter solstice.

In the depths of darkness covering the entire Northern Hemisphere, the winter solstice has marked the shortest day of the year. It has always held significance in many culture's religious festivities and holidays. A great deal of religions have made the celestial moment a holy day. It is the darkest day of the whole year and for the ancients that meant a lot more to them then it does to us today. Sun worshippers and pagans have venerated this natural cycle for millennia.

Christmas as we know it today is a relatively new holiday. Many traditional elements we associate with Christmas predate Christianity by many centuries. There is also a lot of debate as to how much corporate and commercial interests have influenced this holiday as well.

Nowadays, there's a lot of hand waving when it comes to the Christian origins of Christmas. Inarguably, however, is the fact that the holiday's modern iteration has been influenced by many pagan and secular festivities.

Early human celebrations and customs during the Winter Solstice

Photo credit: Ivana Djudic on Unsplash

You'll find plenty of pagan customs in Christmas that were adopted during the early Christian spread around the Roman Empire. We can look back to both the Romans and the Celts for a whole lot of our modern day Christmas traditions.

Celts began celebrating once the winter solstice arrived and rejoiced that the days were slowly getting longer, which meant that spring and the harvest was around the corner. This was most pronounced in their holiday of Yule. Early Christians, who, at that time, were seen by many as being members of an urban cult, worked hard to try to convert and ban old Pagan customs. But the rural pagan inhabitants of those lands were not convinced. Eventually the church realized they needed to co-opt some of these traditions.

Around this time, the Church came up with the idea that Jesus Christ, their savior, was born on December 25th. In the 4th century CE, Christianity had begun to draw heavily upon Roman festival of Saturnalia. Christian leaders succeeded in transposing these festivities on to their new made-up holiday.

The first mention of the Nativity feast and other early Christmas traditions appears in a Philocalian calendar dated around 354 CE. It was because of this pagan origin that celebrating Christmas was banned by the Puritans and made illegal in Massachusetts between 1659 and 1681.

Saturnalia as the ultimate midwinter festival

Romans during the Decadence – Thomas Couture

Saturnalia was an ancient pagan holiday that honored the Roman God Saturn. It took place sometime between December 17th and 24th. It was a week of revelry, decadence and the inversion of social and moral roles.

The festivities consisted of drinking, eating lavishly and giving presents. The first-century poet Gaius Valerius Catullus said that Saturnalia was "the best of times."

Wealthy Romans paid for the destitute and masters would swap clothes with their slaves. Lucian of Samosata speaking as the god Cronos, boasts about this exuberant time in his poem titled Saturnalia:

During my week the serious is barred: no business allowed. Drinking and being drunk, noise and games of dice, appointing of kings and feasting of slaves, singing naked, clapping… an occasional ducking of corked faces in icy water – such are the functions over which I preside.

Saturnalia began as a rural farmer's festival to mark the end of the planting season and midwinter.

Both psychologically and cosmically, this is was a unique time of the year for the ancients. The darkness must have affected them tremendously as without the modern advent of artificial lighting, lessened sunlight would have taken a toll on their mental health. During this time sun and stargazers would have also seen the change in the sun's position.

All of this led to many religious spectacles and spiritual festivals. After all, they were now only relying on their summer food stores of grains and other crops to get them through the winter until they could, again, plant in the new season.

This led to a number of traditions we still take part in today.

Christmas traditions with other pagan origins

Even before historical record, Pagans would worship the trees in the forest and even bring them into their house and start to decorate them. Mistletoe for example was also a plant revered by the Celts and the Norse.

Celtic Druids believed that mistletoe would protect them against the elements of thunder and lightning. These druids would cut off a piece of mistletoe from the trees and then distribute that amongst their people for protection. It was also considered a symbol of peace and joy. Meeting under the mistletoe would call for enemies to put down their weapons and have a truce.

Ivy on the other hand was the great symbol of Bacchus, the Roman equivalent of Dionysus – God of wine, fertility and ritualistic madness. Ivy is a symbol of eternal life.

Traditional Christmas colors like green and red represent fertility. Burning Yule logs was representative of the returning sun as the days began to get longer again.

Christmas revelers, commercial shoppers and devout religious types can all thank the rich traditions and pagan history stretching back thousands of years this holiday season.

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Reactive oxygen species (ROS) accumulate in the gut of sleep-deprived fruit flies, one (left), seven (center) and ten (right) days without sleep.

Image source: Vaccaro et al, 2020/Harvard Medical School
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  • Surprisingly, the direct cause seems to be a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species in the gut produced by sleeplessness.
  • When the buildup is neutralized, a normal lifespan is restored.

We don't have to tell you what it feels like when you don't get enough sleep. A night or two of that can be miserable; long-term sleeplessness is out-and-out debilitating. Though we know from personal experience that we need sleep — our cognitive, metabolic, cardiovascular, and immune functioning depend on it — a lack of it does more than just make you feel like you want to die. It can actually kill you, according to study of rats published in 1989. But why?

A new study answers that question, and in an unexpected way. It appears that the sleeplessness/death connection has nothing to do with the brain or nervous system as many have assumed — it happens in your gut. Equally amazing, the study's authors were able to reverse the ill effects with antioxidants.

The study, from researchers at Harvard Medical School (HMS), is published in the journal Cell.

An unexpected culprit

The new research examines the mechanisms at play in sleep-deprived fruit flies and in mice — long-term sleep-deprivation experiments with humans are considered ethically iffy.

What the scientists found is that death from sleep deprivation is always preceded by a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) in the gut. These are not, as their name implies, living organisms. ROS are reactive molecules that are part of the immune system's response to invading microbes, and recent research suggests they're paradoxically key players in normal cell signal transduction and cell cycling as well. However, having an excess of ROS leads to oxidative stress, which is linked to "macromolecular damage and is implicated in various disease states such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, cancer, neurodegeneration, and aging." To prevent this, cellular defenses typically maintain a balance between ROS production and removal.

"We took an unbiased approach and searched throughout the body for indicators of damage from sleep deprivation," says senior study author Dragana Rogulja, admitting, "We were surprised to find it was the gut that plays a key role in causing death." The accumulation occurred in both sleep-deprived fruit flies and mice.

"Even more surprising," Rogulja recalls, "we found that premature death could be prevented. Each morning, we would all gather around to look at the flies, with disbelief to be honest. What we saw is that every time we could neutralize ROS in the gut, we could rescue the flies." Fruit flies given any of 11 antioxidant compounds — including melatonin, lipoic acid and NAD — that neutralize ROS buildups remained active and lived a normal length of time in spite of sleep deprivation. (The researchers note that these antioxidants did not extend the lifespans of non-sleep deprived control subjects.)

fly with thought bubble that says "What? I'm awake!"

Image source: Tomasz Klejdysz/Shutterstock/Big Think

The experiments

The study's tests were managed by co-first authors Alexandra Vaccaro and Yosef Kaplan Dor, both research fellows at HMS.

You may wonder how you compel a fruit fly to sleep, or for that matter, how you keep one awake. The researchers ascertained that fruit flies doze off in response to being shaken, and thus were the control subjects induced to snooze in their individual, warmed tubes. Each subject occupied its own 29 °C (84F) tube.

For their sleepless cohort, fruit flies were genetically manipulated to express a heat-sensitive protein in specific neurons. These neurons are known to suppress sleep, and did so — the fruit flies' activity levels, or lack thereof, were tracked using infrared beams.

Starting at Day 10 of sleep deprivation, fruit flies began dying, with all of them dead by Day 20. Control flies lived up to 40 days.

The scientists sought out markers that would indicate cell damage in their sleepless subjects. They saw no difference in brain tissue and elsewhere between the well-rested and sleep-deprived fruit flies, with the exception of one fruit fly.

However, in the guts of sleep-deprived fruit flies was a massive accumulation of ROS, which peaked around Day 10. Says Vaccaro, "We found that sleep-deprived flies were dying at the same pace, every time, and when we looked at markers of cell damage and death, the one tissue that really stood out was the gut." She adds, "I remember when we did the first experiment, you could immediately tell under the microscope that there was a striking difference. That almost never happens in lab research."

The experiments were repeated with mice who were gently kept awake for five days. Again, ROS built up over time in their small and large intestines but nowhere else.

As noted above, the administering of antioxidants alleviated the effect of the ROS buildup. In addition, flies that were modified to overproduce gut antioxidant enzymes were found to be immune to the damaging effects of sleep deprivation.

The research leaves some important questions unanswered. Says Kaplan Dor, "We still don't know why sleep loss causes ROS accumulation in the gut, and why this is lethal." He hypothesizes, "Sleep deprivation could directly affect the gut, but the trigger may also originate in the brain. Similarly, death could be due to damage in the gut or because high levels of ROS have systemic effects, or some combination of these."

The HMS researchers are now investigating the chemical pathways by which sleep-deprivation triggers the ROS buildup, and the means by which the ROS wreak cell havoc.

"We need to understand the biology of how sleep deprivation damages the body so that we can find ways to prevent this harm," says Rogulja.

Referring to the value of this study to humans, she notes,"So many of us are chronically sleep deprived. Even if we know staying up late every night is bad, we still do it. We believe we've identified a central issue that, when eliminated, allows for survival without sleep, at least in fruit flies."

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