Reflections on Calendars, Sacred Festivals And The Turning Of The Ages
by Daniel Giamario in 1998
re-edited and Updated by Cayelin Castell in 2013
In this season of sacred Festivals, including Christmas, Hanukkah, and the Yule of the Pagan traditions, it can be illuminating and reinvigorating to explore the roots of these festivals and the experiential reality still animating this time of year. Our investigation includes the nature and origin of calendars, and the esoteric and exoteric meaning of the Winter Solstice.
The importance of calendars, politically, economically, and spiritually, has frequently been either overlooked or taken for granted. This occurred with the institution of our current Gregorian Calender that tracks the passage of years down to the nano-second so that the deeper significance of the seasons, and the cycles of the natural world are largely ignored.
The truth is that the calendar now used by the entire world works practically, economically and politically, but is in essence not really about anything! It is an artificial secular construction completely divorced from the natural rhythms and cycles of the natural world. The months have no connection to the actual Moon cycles, and the year doesn’t start in direct connection to any solar, lunar cycle.
When the realization of this hits, it’s no wonder some have hinted that our current calendar was intentionally constructed as part of a scheme devised by those in power to disconnect the people from a natural connection to the land and sky. This separation and disconnect is a major feature of western patriarchal civilization and the results are readily apparent in the countless global problems we are now facing. A return to a natural calendar that recognizes, experientially, the sacredness of cycles, can be part of the solution to the predicament of our times, as well as re-empowering our existing winter festivals.
The earliest calendars attempted to interconnect and harmonize the cycles of the Sun and the Moon, while also marking the starting points of the year and the seasons. These calendars created a complex task that had many different solutions depending on the culture. The solving of this puzzle depended on the foundation of countless political, religious, and spiritual matters that are now generally taken for granted.
For example, many versions of Moon calendars exist. Some were inspired by the phases of the Moon or the 29.5306 day cycle, also called the synodic month. This is the number of days it takes for the Moon to return to a phase, New Moon to New Moon or Full Moon to Full Moon and is what gives us our “Moonth” or Month. This is because when we divide the 29.5 day Moon cyclce into a year the closest whole number is 12.
Other calendars were inspired by the 27.3 day cycle, or the sidereal month. This is the number of days takes the Moon to travel through all the star patters and return to a starting point, say for example the star Antares. Dividing 27.3 days into a year the closest whole number is 13. That means the Moon passes by Antares 13 times each year.
Multiplying 12 or 13 months (Moons) into a year still does not equal the 365.25 days that make up our solar year, or the time it takes for the Sun to return to a starting point. Nevertheless the lunar calendar was meticulously maintained by almost all ancient cultures and usually had priority over the solar calendar for sacred timings and festivals.
Meanwhile, the cycles of the Sun, determining the seasons, have been variously tracked; by noticing the extremes of the Suns orbit north or south of its east or west rising and setting positions. The Sun rises due east and sets due west at the equinoxes, while at the solstices reaches an extreme of 23.5 degrees north (summer solstice) or 23.5 degrees south (winter solstice) of due east or due west.
In most cultures, these extremes marked the turning point in the Sun’s path. Some cultures used the midpoints between Solstices and Equinoxes or the Cross-quarter days to celebrate the seasonal changes. For example, the Celts used the Cross-quarter at Samhain (November) as theirNew Year’s point.
Cultures that live close to the equator, do not experience much of a change in the seasons so they did not use the Solstices or Equinox point to determine the New Year. For example, the Hawaiians and Tahitians used the rising of the Pleiades conjunct the Crescent New Moon to determine when to start their New Year.
An example of culture that used the Moon at a seasonal point is the Hebrew. They used the siting of the first crescent Moon near the Autumnal Equinox to begin their New Year. Many cultures planned their festivals and ceremonies to coincide with the turning points of the cycles of the Sun and Moon.
A cross-cultural and global view of humanity reveals the Winter Solstice to be in many respects, the most important magical point of the natural year. What follows are examples from around the world.
First, it is important to note that Solstice literally means “standstill of the Sun”. At Winter Solstice, the Sun travels farthest south in its orbital path and for about three days the Sun rises and sets at virtually the same place on the Horizon, appearing to stand still before slowly beginning its journey North. As Winter Solstice approaches, the nights become longer and the days shorter, so that the days around Winter Solstice are the shortest of the year.
Most ancient peoples (including Anasazi, Celtic, Scandinavian, Etruscan, and many more) planned their festivals and ceremonies at or around the Winter Solstice. The intent was to ensure that the Sun would return; that the days would again begin to lengthen. The implicit belief was that if the ceremonies were not worked properly, then the Sun might not return, and there would be eternal winter.
The Anasazi, along with their descendants among the Hopi, Pueblo, and Zuni, honored the Winter Solstice as the turning point of the solar year. Soyal is the Hopi’s highest festival determined by the observation of the sunrise and sunset at the furthest south point on their horizon calendars. It is the job of village elder, called the Tawa-Mongwi, or the Sun Chief, to stand at the observation point on Second Mesa and carefully observe the sunset over the San Francisco peaks, home of their Kachinas. It was (and is) extremely important to get this right, for knowledge of when to plant crops was dependent on the correct calculation of the Winter Solstice.
Among the Pueblos, Winter Solstice is an affirmation that the cyclical order of time and the world order will continue intact. Their ceremonies of Soyal are designed to guarantee the Sun’s return North. They called the Full Moon nearest the “sacred but dangerous Moon”, alluding to their concern that the Sun might not return.
The Zunis attempted to organize their calendar so that Winter Solstice occurred at or near the Full Moon. For them, White Shell Woman (the Moon) helped to persuade the Sun to return North. The coincidence of Full Moon and Winter Solstice at the same time was viewed as a great opportunity to bring the solar and lunar calendars into agreement. A Full Moon at the Winter Solstice happens every 8 or 9 years. For example, there was a Full Moon eclipse on Dec 21, 2010 and the next time a Full Moon occurs that close to the exact Solstice is Dec 22, 2018 and then again on Dec 20, 2029.
These examples are typical of all land based agricultural peoples. There are numerous other examples from the Celtic traditions and from other Neolithic peoples of Northern Europe and the British Isles with virtually identical attitudes about the Winter Solstice. These traditions always included practical applications regarding agriculture as well as the spiritual view of the dying and reborn Sun/Son or the death and rebirth of the light.
Other important attributes of a comprehensive understanding of Winter Solstice are evident when examining the festival of Saturnalia celebrated by the Etruscans, and Romans. This celebration eventually spread into the Latin world as far as Mexico. Saturnalia was usually a seven day rite marking the New Year, as well as venerating the God Saturn, Lord of Time, Boundaries, and Law.
Winter Solstice themes and celebrations are based on the connection to the seasonal sign of Capricorn and the planet Saturn. The Winter Solstice occurs astrologically, when the Sun reaches the coordinate of zero degrees Capricorn. The planet most resonant with Capricorn is Saturn. Both Capricorn and Saturn symbolize the laws, boundaries, rules and operating manual of the culture.
The Romans had an interesting attitude about Saturn as it represented ‘the law’. Their festival was celebrated by granting general amnesties, masters served the slaves, marriage vows were suspended, and there was a banquet that set aside all hierarchical distinction. Following the Solstice (New Year) the law returned and was enforced.
The early Christians were horrified at what looked like an unbridled Pagan orgy around Saturnalia. New Year’s Eve is a remnant of this time as it is the one night in the year that many people give themselves permission to put aside all limitations and inhibitions. When we think about it, this is a very interesting way of dealing with themes of renewal at the end of the year even though the Gregorian Calendar New Year is no longer directly tied to the Solstice or the original Saturnalia festivals.
It is interesting to note that almost all religious festivals, or secular holidays like May Day, Groundhog Day, and even Bank Holidays in the British Isles, are connected to ancient pagan occasions linked with the Cross-quarter celebrations of Imbolc and Beltane. These holidays were introduced to supplant the veneration of the pagan deities and the celebration of the natural connection between the land and sky.
Christmas was given its particular position on the calendar to divert attention from the old Winter Solstice celebrations of Saturnalia. Most of the familiar Christmas themes like Santa Claus, Christmas trees, mistletoe, Yule Logs, and gift giving are all vestiges of the earlier ‘so-called pagan’ traditions.
This is further corroborated by Manly P. Hall who writes, “Saturn, the old man who lives at the North Pole (Winter Solstice), and who brings with him to the children of men a sprig of evergreen (the Christmas tree), is familiar to folks under the name of Santa Claus, for he brings each winter the gift of a New Year.”
The political implications of how a new religion, or government, will superimpose their beliefs over previous ones, are obvious, and have happened repeatedly. However, on an esoteric and metaphysical level, the transformation of Winter Solstice and the ‘Pagan’ New Year into the Christian celebration of the birth of the son of God brings out yet another feature of Winter Solstice; the death and rebirth of the spirit and consciousness symbolized by the Sun/Son.
Prior to the Christian era, numerous ‘mystery schools’ and rites of initiation existed with themes of death and rebirth, including the Mithraic, Dionysian, and Orphic. Lying at the root of these stories is the God, miraculously born, who then sacrifices himself, or is sacrificed, going into the underworld to procure some benefit for humanity, to then be miraculously reborn again. The birthday of these “Gods” was always the Winter Solstice.
The Solar light symbolically dies as it approaches Winter Solstice, so we could then say the physical world is the Winter Solstice of the Spirit. At the Winter Solstice, spirit and consciousness makes its deepest descent into density and matter or darkness. Yet, the Light is poised and ready to return. The saying, ‘it is darkest just before the dawn’ comes to mind. This is when people take vigil, offer their prayers, work the ceremonies, and then celebrate the return of the light. This is how the birth of the Sun becomes the birth of theSon.
Turning of the Ages
Each age incorporates the important and powerful features of the previous one. Each age is revisioned and the old truths become subservient to the new, incoming visions of the truth as humanity dreams the dream onward.
We now stand at another Turning Of The Ages, somewhat similar to 2000 years ago, when the forms of the Winter Solstice festivals that we now use were first dreamed and put into practiced. What is different now is that it is highly likely we are now at the end and beginning of an entire 26,000 year cycle. (see A Shamanic Look at the Turning of the Ages)
If this is indeed true, then humanity is now undergoing a Winter Solstice festival, relative to the entire 26,000 year cycle and it lasts for many years. We could say the planetary Saturnalia began in 1962 and lasts until 2034.
How do we engage Winter Solstice at the Turning of the Ages?
From a cross-cultural and global historical perspective, the question is what must be incorporated now to empower both a continued celebration of traditional Winter Solstice festivals (Christmas, Yule, New Years, etc.), as well as creating new celebratory festivals appropriate to and emerging age? Here are a few suggestions:
- Winter Solstice is the most logical and appropriate place in a Calendar for the New Year. The majority of world calendars and medicine traditions recognized this. Our current, non-natural, western calendar, even recognizes this. Originally, it was calibrated to begin at Winter Solstice, now beginning on the arbitrary date of January 1 so is now disconnected from anything real.
- Since almost all cultures have attempted to bring lunar and solar cycles into alignment, the nearest New or Full Moons to the Winter Solstice are especially significant for festivals, community ceremonies, and for personal initiatory activity.
- The interweaving of both secular and sacred themes of Winter Solstice must always be kept in mind. Winter Solstice was a community celebration and festival, celebrating the return of the Sun, longer days, and greater warmth.
- Winter Solstice celebrates the beginning of a New Year or new Solar Cycle, incorporating revelry and the suspension of ‘The Law’.
- A time for celebrating that includes the sharing of gifts (not material gifts but gifts of song, dance, storytelling, preparing delicious food, games, sports, and other creative offerings) symbolizing the gift of a New Year and the returning light. This is a celebration marking the point of the deepest descent of spirit/light into matter (the full descent of spirit into incarnation).
- Celebrating and remembering remember who we really are as ‘Christed’ ones – experiencing the return of our own inner light
- It has never been more important to for humanity to consciously participate with the natural cycles of the Sun, Moon, and seasons. It is still important and it makes a BIG difference! So that is why it is so important to reanimate the sacred festivals with their natural foundations and prepare to dream them into the emerging epoch!
Winter Solstice December 21, 2014. The Full Moon closest to the Solstice is December 06.
Winter Solstice December 21, 2015. The Full Moon closest to the Solstice is December 25.
Winter Solstice December 21, 2016. The Full Moon closest to the Solstice is December 13.
Winter Solstice December 21, 2017. The Full Moon closest to the Solstice is December 03.
Winter Solstice December 21, 2018. The Full Moon closest to the Solstice is December 22.
Winter Solstice December 21, 2019. The Full Moon closest to the Solstice is December 11.
Winter Solstice December 21, 2020. The Full Moon closest to the Solstice is December 29.
Echoes of Ancient Skies by Dr. E. C. Krupp
Hamlets Mill by Hertha vonDeshend, and Giorgiu De Santillana
Prehistoric Astronomy in The Southwest by Kim Malville
Empires of Time by Anthony Aveni
The Secret Teachings of All Ages by Manley Hall
Living the Sky by Ray Williamson
The Celtic Druids by Godfrey Higgins
How the Shaman Stole The Moon by William Calvin