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.