Timing Saturnalia

This post involves research that went no deeper than Wikipedia. Consider yourself warned.

It may be Saturnalia today. I was reminded of this when two (non-Pagan) Facebook friends wished everyone a happy Saturnalia and linked to the Wikipedia article about the holiday. In a mood to be distracted, I clicked through and started reading. I thought I’d get some ideas on how to observe Saturnalia, but I got caught up simply in trying to figure out when it is. Okay, Saturnalia falls on December 17, but according to the article, that’s December 17 in the Julian calendar. By now, there’s a 13-day discrepancy between the Julian and Gregorian calendars, so perhaps my friends should have waited until December 30 to post their Saturnalia greetings. Except I doubt anyone is going to want to wait that long—that late in December, everyone is getting burned out on festivities and is ready for that last hurrah on New Year’s Eve. December 30 does have one point in its favor, though: the sun is well into Capricorn by then. It just doesn’t feel right to be honoring Saturn while the sun is still in the Jupiter-ruled sign of Sagittarius.

Capricorn came up again as I continued to wade through the timing information in the Wikipedia article. When I came upon the statement that the first day of Capricorn* was December 17 and that it was significant that this date was close to that of the winter solstice, I was both intrigued and bewildered. See, in all the astrology I’ve ever learned, the sun goes into Capricorn at the moment of the winter solstice, not several days earlier. This did make December 17 make more sense as a date for Saturnalia: if the sun was in Capricorn and not Sagittarius, then at least it was taking place at an astrologically appropriate time. Maybe the ancients who stated that December 17 was the first day of Capricorn were using the sidereal zodiac (based on the constellations themselves) rather than the tropical zodiac (based on the sun’s position at the solstices and equinoxes) often used today. Nowadays, the first day of sidereal Capricorn is roughly January 13, which didn’t seem to work. But then I remembered the first day of Capricorn will have moved noticeably over 2,000 years or so. Pull up the astrological software, start testing ancient dates, and…yes: around 300 BCE, the sun entered sidereal Capricorn on December 17!

Having learned all this, I’m leaning towards celebrating Saturnalia on the winter solstice, matching the zodiac I’ve known since childhood. This would at least be symbolically significant to me. It might strain historical accuracy, but in all honesty, it’s not like that many people would know if I was “off” by a few days in my Saturnalia greetings. Actually I’m amazed I know anyone who wishes people a happy Saturnalia in the first place!


*That is, the day the sun enters Capricorn.

New years

Today we head into a new year by a quasi-secular calendar. One of the fun things about the multicultural world we’re living in is that there are lots and lots of new years to celebrate, and unlike some religious beliefs and practices, new year celebrations seem to be able to get along with each other relatively peacefully. You don’t have to think of someone else’s new year as your new year to be able to enjoy it. As they spread themselves across the calendar, there’s usually a stretch of time in which someone’s new year celebration is likely to come up. Just off the top of my head, the following occurred to me (2011 dates):

  • New Year’s Day: January 1
  • Chinese New Year: February 3
  • Hmong New Year: date unknown
  • beginning of the astrological year: March 20
  • beginning of the U.S. school year: early September
  • Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year): September 29
  • Samhain: October 31
  • Muharram (Islamic New Year): November 26

And on a personal level:

  • Your birthday

The human race looks quite willing to start a new year at any time of the year, although high summer in the northern hemisphere doesn’t seem to be as popular. (As the lunar Islamic calendar moves backward against the solar Gregorian calendar, its first day passes through the summer months for a number of years.) There are all sorts of reasons for starting a new year at a particular time. The Gregorian year begins on January 1 because it inherited that date from the Julian calendar, which in turn began a new year based on a date when Roman consuls took up office. The Chinese New Year is determined astronomically: usually on the second new moon after the winter solstice. The astrological year begins when the Sun moves into Aries, and Samhain more or less falls on the halfway point between the fall equinox and the winter solstice.

For all that many witches consider Samhain our New Year’s Day, I’ve never been able to see it that way. The days are getting shorter, the temperature is dropping along with the few remaining leaves—none of this says “new” to me. But putting that together along with Samhain’s general death theme, I can see Samhain as a sort of New Year’s Eve. I’m more of a Yule-as-New-Year’s-Day person. If one must begin somewhere, the start of the return of sunlight works for me. Where I live, December 22 was two seconds longer than December 21. I treasured each of those seconds.

While we say we celebrate New Year’s Day and January 1 is the official date for government holidays, we put most of our energy into New Year’s Eve celebrations. After the clock strikes 12:00 AM, there’s not much left to do but make a few toasts, find your coat, and head home. New Year’s Day itself tends to be a quiet day. By now, many people are probably partied out. It makes for a fine day for changing calendars, listing out resolutions, and catching up on our blogging.

And on that note, Happy New Year!