Today is the day the sun stops.
Ever since September, as the sun gradually moved south in the sky, the daylight has ineluctably become briefer and the darkness has lengthened. In the culmination of that journey, the night lingers for almost fifteen hours for us in the northern hemisphere.
Finally, on this shortest day, the sun hesitates in its journey south and begins heading in the opposite direction. The solstice marks that moment. The Latin word sol named the sun. Solstice’s second syllable derives from the verb stare, meaning “to stand,” as in status, statue, and stationary. Ancient people, attuned to the sky, noticed that the sun was up to something.
And the sun’s hesitation is something to celebrate, because increasing darkness is ominous, as we in Cleveland well know. Short days don’t bode well for the olive groves or the vineyards. So when we see the sun changing its mind and lengthening the days, we say (if we’re Roman), ”Io Saturnalia!” for the festival of Saturn, an agricultural deity.
“Yay!” Romans said at this time of year. “Bring out the lights and the greenery! Saturn’s coming back!”
When early Christians wanted to celebrate the birth of Christ, they shouted “Yay!” under cover of the Saturnalia. Scripture doesn’t say when Jesus was born, so the wily Christians incorporated the Saturnalia’s decorating, gift giving, and feasting into their own celebration. What the Roman authorities didn’t know wouldn’t hurt them.