“When the morning sun hits that there rock, we party, okay?” To dog-skin-clad pagans shivering in their leaking hovels, it was an easy sell.
In time, the enemies of solstice celebrations turned out to be the Christians, the Jews, and any other come-lately, but powerful, organized religion that simply glommed on to the existing revels and “gave them new meaning.”
“You know, it’s really Christmas.”
“Actually, it’s Hanukkah.”
Well, some say this war was never won — that vestiges of pagan solstice celebrations endure disguised as symbols of more recent beliefs. Holly, ivy, candles, whatever.
There are some ancient solstice traditions that aren’t much missed. The long-abandoned Greek holiday called Lenaea, for example — also known as the Festival of the Wild Women. This fete was kicked off with a human sacrifice — a man, representing the wine-god Dionysus, would be set upon, torn to bits, and eaten by, as one source describes them, “a gang of women.” Subsequently there would be some mumbo-jumbo ritual of rebirth, but that didn’t much help the guy they had for lunch.
Today, Wiccans, atheists, various neo-pagan orders, latter-day Druids, and wide-eyed New Agers keep the solstice celebration alive. The contemporary War on the Solstice is waged mostly by Christian fundamentalists who see modern sun-worshipping as another attempt to undermine and secularize Christmas (to re-co-opt the co-opter, as it were), and killjoy physicists who deny the widely held belief that you can stand eggs on end on the longest and shortest days of the year.
The war on Saturnalia
This particular variation on the solstice conflict is almost as old as Christmas itself, and it’s worth singling out because the passive-aggressive tactic that ultimately won the day resonates even unto this century. There was a time when people were free to celebrate the dedication of the Temple of Saturn and give that agricultural deity his annual due with an annual do. The holiday was so popular that it evolved into an entire season spanning most of the month of December.
What a time they had: no school, rampant licentiousness, nonstop drunkenness, gambling and revelry, yard sales, dove munching, wife swapping, and, in the spirit of good sportsmanship, elaborate parties where masters and slaves switched roles for the evening. Kinky, very kinky.
And then came the zealous (and possibly jealous) oppressors. In this case it was the very people who claim to be under attack today — the theretofore unpopular Christians themselves. Unable to approve of or dissuade the Roman population from its annual solstice caprice, the early Christians cleverly sought to hijack the vexing festival by fixing Christmas Day on December 25. You couldn’t celebrate one without seemingly celebrating the other. There were a lot of instant converts — at least on paper.
Over time, the Saturnalians weakened and the Christians established the biggest religious bureaucracy in history. The Church started making rules — mostly against all the fun things that used to go on during Saturnalia. And thus was that war won. On paper, anyway. And from that time on, there was no merriment without guilt.