Cosmos ,Sanatan Dharma.Ancient Hinduism science.
[This article was originally written for the Atheists United radio program that was
broadcast on KPFK-FM in Los Angeles. Later it was adapted to an article that
appeared in the Fall 1985 issue of Free Inquiry magazine.]
Every December we experience the greatest media blitz of falsehood. Newspapers and broadcasters repeat the deplorable “commercialization” of Christmas. So we seem to have lost the true meaning of Christmas and perverted it into a pagan holiday,”
The winter solstice (or hibernal solstice), also known as midwinter, is an astronomical phenomenon marking the day with the shortest period of daylight and the longest night of the year. In the Northern Hemisphere this is the December solstice and in the Southern Hemisphere this is the June solstice.
The axial tilt of Earth and gyroscopic effects of its daily rotation mean that the two opposite points in the sky to which the Earth’s axis of rotation points (axial precession) change very slowly (at the current rate it would take just under 26,000 years to make a complete circle). As the Earth follows its orbit around the Sun, the polar hemisphere that faced away from the Sun, experiencing winter, will, in half a year, face towards the Sun and experience summer. This is because the two hemispheres face opposite directions along Earth’s axis, and so as one polar hemisphere experiences winter, the other experiences summer.
More evident from high latitudes, a hemisphere’s winter solstice occurs on the day with the shortest period of daylight and longest night of the year, when the sun’s daily maximum elevation in the sky is at its lowest. Although the winter solstice itself lasts only a moment in time, the term sometimes refers to the day on which it occurs. Other names are “midwinter”, the “extreme of winter” (Dongzhi), or the “shortest day”. In some cultures it is seen as the middle of winter, while in others it is seen as the beginning of winter. In meteorology, winter in the Northern Hemisphere spans the entire period of December through February. The seasonal significance of the winter solstice is in the reversal of the gradual lengthening of nights and shortening hours of daylight during the day. The earliest sunset and latest sunrise dates differ from winter solstice, however, and these depend on latitude, due to the variation in the solar day throughout the year caused by the Earth’s elliptical orbit (see earliest and latest sunrise and sunset).
Ancient people were very dependent on the seasons. That is why all cultures in all parts
of the world have held their major religious festivals on these four occasions.
In the days of the Roman republic, the calendar was numbered from the founding of
Rome – which, according to the present calendar, would be 753 B.C.E. And March 15,
called the Ides of March, was designated as New Year’s Day. However, this was a lunar
calendar rather than a solar calendar, so the months rotated throughout the year. One
year March 15 might be in the summer, and a few years later it would be in the winter.
Greece, and all of northern Europe, operated on a solar calendar, with the new year
starting on the winter solstice. When the Romans invaded Greece in the fifth century
B.C.E., they realized the advantages of a solar calendar. In 153 B.C.E., New Year’s
Day was moved to January first, since Janus was the two-faced god of doorways and
Finally, in 46 B.C.E., Julius Caesar switched from a lunar to a solar calendar. He divided
the year into 365 and one-quarter days, with twelve “moons,” or months, all of which
had either 30 or 31 days, except February, which had 28 – and 29 every fourth year.
New Year’s Day was still on January first.
The major festival of the year in ancient Rome was called the “Saturnalia,” and it
centered on the winter solstice. When the Julian calendar was first devised, the solstice
fell on December 25. But the Julian calendar had an error of eleven minutes. The year is
actually 365 days, 6 hours, 11 minutes and a few seconds. So by the third century C.E.
the solstice had crept backwards to approximately December 23.
At this time, the emperor Aurelian established an official holiday called “Sol Invicti” –
meaning unconquered sun, in honor of the Syrian sun god “Sol,” and also in honor of
himself, since the emperors were regarded as the divine incarnation of Apollo. This
holiday was held on December 24 and 25. And it more or less established December 25
as the official solstice. All other religions that worshipped sun gods also accepted
December 25 as a fixed date for their celebrations. And the major festivals of the
Egyptian earth-mother Isis were held on December 25, January 6, and March 5.
The earliest Christians assumed that Christ was born and was resurrected on the same day – March 25 – which was assumed to be the vernal equinox. Later Christians celebrated the birth of Christ on January 6, along with the festival of Isis. By the fourth century, many Christians were referring to December 25 as the day of the “unconquered son” – in defiance of the emperor, and January 6 was then called “Epiphany,” when either the magi were supposed to have visited or Christ was baptized, or maybe both.
In 325 C.E., many churches did not want to be associated with the pagan
religions, and to this day the Eastern Orthodox Church celebrates the birth of Christ on
January 7 – the day after Epiphany.
In the fourth century, Emperor Constantine established our seven-day week – based on
Throughout the early Middle Ages, most of Europe disregarded Roman practices and
continued to start the year with the equinox – March 25. England, however, retained the
practice of starting the year on the solstice – December 25.
By 1582, the eleven-minute error in the Julian calendar had thrown the year ten days out of sync with the sun, which was very upsetting to the Catholic Church, since the
calendar determined all their feast days. At that time, the pope was the most powerful
person in the world. So Pope Gregory had the authority to establish his “Gregorian”
calendar. He deleted ten days from that year, which pushed the solstice back to
December 22, where it had been when the Catholic Church was founded in 325. But by
then, the connections with Christmas had long since been forgotten, so it remained on
December 25. Then Gregory modified the rule about how often leap-year must occur so
the calendar wouldn’t drift out of sync again. The Gregorian calendar also retained the
Italian tradition of January first as New Year’s Day. England and America finally
accepted the Gregorian calendar in 1752.
“Santa Claus” is a contraction of “St. Nicholas,” who was archbishop of the sea-port of
Myra, in Asia Minor, during the time of the Nicene Council. He died on December 6,
326. Since he was bishop of a seaport, he became the patron saint of sailors – and
therefore of all travelers, most of whom were merchants. Later he was adopted as the
favorite saint of the Russian Orthodox Church and, eventually, of fishermen as far away
as Lapland and the Arctic Ocean.