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How Christians co-opted the winter solstice
Christmas has many pagan and secular traditions that early Christians incorporated into this new holiday.
- 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
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.
- Can Catholics Celebrate the Winter Solstice? | Women of Grace ›
- December Solstice Traditions and Customs ›
- Why Christmas Celebrated on the 25th December? -- Christmas ... ›
- Should Christians Celebrate the Solstice? - Beliefnet ›
- BBC Religion & Ethics - Did the Romans invent Christmas? ›
- Is Christmas A Pagan Holiday? ›
- Pagan Roots? 5 Surprising Facts About Christmas ›
A man's skeleton, found facedown with his hands bound, was unearthed near an ancient ceremonial circle during a high speed rail excavation project.
- A skeleton representing a man who was tossed face down into a ditch nearly 2,500 years ago with his hands bound in front of his hips was dug up during an excavation outside of London.
- The discovery was made during a high speed rail project that has been a bonanza for archaeology, as the area is home to more than 60 ancient sites along the planned route.
- An ornate grave of a high status individual from the Roman period and an ancient ceremonial circle were also discovered during the excavations.
Foul play?<p>A skeleton representing a man who was tossed face down into a ditch nearly 2,500 years ago with his hands bound in front of his hips was dug up during a high speed rail excavation.</p><p>The positioning of the remains have led archaeologists to suspect that the man may have been a victim of an ancient murder or execution. Though any bindings have since decomposed, his hands were positioned together and pinned under his pelvis. There was also no sign of a grave or coffin. </p><p>"He seems to have had his hands tied, and he was face-down in the bottom of the ditch," <a href="https://www.livescience.com/iron-age-murder-victim-england.html" target="_blank">said archaeologist Rachel Wood</a>, who led the excavation. "There are not many ways that you end up that way."</p><p>Currently, archaeologists are examining the skeleton to uncover more information about the circumstances of the man's death. Fragments of pottery found in the ditch may offer some clues as to exactly when the man died. </p><p>"If he was struck across the head with a heavy object, you could find a mark of that on the back of the skull," Wood said to <a href="https://www.livescience.com/iron-age-murder-victim-england.html" target="_blank">Live Science</a>. "If he was stabbed, you could find blade marks on the ribs. So we're hoping to find something like that, to tell us how he died."</p>
Other discoveries at Wellwick Farm<p>The grim discovery was made at Wellwick Farm near Wendover. That is about 15 miles north-west of the outskirts of London, where <a href="https://www.hs2.org.uk/building-hs2/hs2-green-corridor/" target="_blank">a tunnel</a> is going to be built as part of a HS2 high-speed rail project due to open between London and several northern cities sometime after 2028. The infrastructure project has been something of a bonanza for archaeology as the area is home to more than 60 ancient sites along the planned route that are now being excavated before construction begins. </p><p>The farm sits less than a mile away from the ancient highway <a href="http://web.stanford.edu/group/texttechnologies/cgi-bin/stanfordnottingham/places/?icknield" target="_blank">Icknield Way</a> that runs along the tops of the Chiltern Hills. The route (now mostly trails) has been used since prehistoric times. Evidence at Wellwick Farm indicates that from the Neolithic to the Medieval eras, humans have occupied the region for more than 4,000 years, making it a rich area for archaeological finds. </p><p>Wood and her colleagues found some evidence of an ancient village occupied from the late Bronze Age (more than 3,000 years ago) until the Roman Empire's invasion of southern England about 2,000 years ago. At the site were the remains of animal pens, pits for disposing food, and a roundhouse — a standard British dwelling during the Bronze Age constructed with a circular plan made of stone or wood topped with a conical thatched roof.</p>
Ceremonial burial site<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzMTk0Ni9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NDgwNTIyMX0.I49n1-j8WVhKjIZS_wVWZissnk3W1583yYXB7qaGtN8/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C82%2C0%2C83&height=700" id="44da7" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="46cfc8ca1c64fc404b32014542221275" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="top down view of coffin" data-width="1245" data-height="700" />
A high status burial in a lead-lined coffin dating back to Roman times.
Photo Credit: HS2<p>While these ancient people moved away from Wellwick Farm before the Romans invaded, a large portion of the area was still used for ritual burials for high-status members of society, Wood told Live Science. The ceremonial burial site included a circular ditch (about 60 feet across) at the center, and was a bit of a distance away from the ditch where the (suspected) murder victim was uncovered. Additionally, archaeologists found an ornately detailed grave near the sacred burial site that dates back to the Roman period, hundreds of years later when the original Bronze Age burial site would have been overgrown.</p><p>The newer grave from the Roman period encapsulated an adult skeleton contained in a lead-lined coffin. It's likely that the outer coffin had been made of wood that rotted away. Since it was clearly an ornate burial, the occupant of the grave was probably a person of high status who could afford such a lavish burial. However, according to Wood, no treasures or tokens had been discovered. </p>
Sacred timber circle<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzMTk0Ny9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2MDAwOTQ4Mn0.eVJAUcD0uBUkVMFuMOPSgH8EssGkfLf_MjwUv0zGCI8/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C149%2C0%2C149&height=700" id="9de6a" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ee66520d470b26f5c055eaef0b95ec06" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="An aerial view of the sacred circular monument." data-width="1245" data-height="700" />
An aerial view of the sacred circular monument.
Photo Credit: HS2<p>One of the most compelling archaeological discoveries at Wellwick Farm are the indications of a huge ceremonial circle once circumscribed by timber posts lying south of the Bronze Age burial site. Though the wooden posts have rotted away, signs of the post holes remain. It's thought to date from the Neolithic period to 5,000 years ago, according to Wood.</p><p>This circle would have had a diameter stretching 210 feet across and consisted of two rings of hundreds of posts. There would have been an entry gap to the south-west. Five posts in the very center of the circle aligned with that same gap, which, according to Wood, appeared to have been in the direction of the rising sun on the day of the midwinter solstice. </p><p>Similar Neolithic timber circles have been discovered around Great Britain, such as one near <a href="https://bigthink.com/culture-religion/stonehenge-sarsens" target="_blank">Stonehenge</a> that is considered to date back to around the same time. </p>
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Research reveals a new evolutionary feature that separates humans from other primates.
- Researchers find a new feature of human evolution.
- Humans have evolved to use less water per day than other primates.
- The nose is one of the factors that allows humans to be water efficient.
A model of water turnover for humans and chimpanzees who have similar fat free mass and body water pools.
Credit: Current Biology
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