Seasonal Spirituality and Roman Speculations

I love fall and spring. Winter and summer, I can do without, especially summer. I look out my window at a slate-grey, drizzly sky. Here we are on the cusp of winter, a time when for almost a thousand years, the Romans celebrated their festival of Saturnalia from 17-23 December. In a kind of Roman mythological-cultural memory, Saturn ruled during a time of bounty when everyone could eat from the land and no one had to work. I wonder if this golden age idea might be related to earlier, Jewish, Garden of Eden accounts.

Saturnalia was a time when social roles were reversed. The master served his/her slaves. The slaves ate the banquet food. The masters ate the slave’s food. Slaves were allowed to verbally abuse their masters. It was all in good fun and everybody knew the festival would end and things would go back to normal. Eating and drinking to excess was also the norm. There is a much more ancient anxiety in many northern hemisphere cultures that the sun will die, and the earth will keep getting colder, crops won’t grow, and everyone will starve. Saturnalia helped banish this anxiety with mirth, drunkenness, candle-lighting, role reversal, gift-giving and even cards (although there was no Hallmark then).

People exchanged gifts of low value as a recognition of gratitude for the recipient. Poems were penned on stiff parchment and exchanged sometimes as serious works and other times as gags. One Roman author signed his card “from the worst poet ever.” In 247 AD, Emperor Aurelius declared that the religion of Sol Invictus (the unconquered sun) would be added to the official Roman pantheon of gods. Recall that this is a period when various Roman emperors were persecuting Christians.

The birthdate of the god, Sol Invictus was set as December 25 and the Saturnalia festival added another religious component. Less than a century later, Pope Julius I declared that the birth of Jesus would be December 25. Although no record of his reasoning has been found, many speculate that Christians could celebrate the birth of their savior on the same date as the previous state religious festival. A second motivation was the idea that Jesus died on the anniversary of his conception. Passover in the third century was celebrated on March 25, so his conception would be December 25.

Over in Bath, England, you can visit a Church of England Cathedral erected near a natural hot springs Roman bath. The large, public bath still holds water which is better than any plumbing in my house. In the same area was a Roman Temple erected in the honor of Sol Invictus. Archaeologists knew for centuries that a large round stone in the center of the pediment for the temple included a carved relief of the Roman god. Christians in the 4th or 5th century tore down the pagan temple.

Modern archaeologists assumed the stone had been carried off somewhere. Until a paving contractor in the 20th century overturned a six-foot diameter stone and discovered that the image of Sol Invictus was pulled off the temple and placed face-down in the mud for 1500 years. You can just imagine the immense satisfaction those fifth century Christians had doing that while they destroyed the temple.

Over in the hot springs, archaeologists have found the top layer of the deep spring containing Christian pilgrimage items tossed in along with a prayer for healing. Beneath the Christian layer are Roman items that pilgrims seeking healing in the hot springs dedicated to Sol Invictus. Beneath that layer are items from the Druids going back to 2000 BC. Seems like what goes around comes around.

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