Happy Saturn’s Day

We celebrate Christmas in our culture with a weird mix of pagan, Christian and consumerist images, symbols and narratives.  I used to fret over that, but now I’m just resigned to it and can even see the great humor in it (of course it would be much funnier without the burden of debt, guilt and anxiety that it puts on so many people, but we won’t go there this morning).

I was traveling for business a few years ago and saw a front yard nativity scene in Rhode Island that included Frosty the Snowman at the manger (along with “the Three Wisemen” of course). Sadly, Santa and the Little Drummer Boy were missing.

Much of what we associate with Christmas comes from our pagan northern European ancestors.  When Christmas was invented it was merged into existing pagan celebrations of the Winter Solstice.  In the last 125 years or so our culture has morphed it again, infusing it with materialism and consumerism.  Christmas these days is first and foremost about buying things and welcoming the arrival of Santa Claus.

Like most things, culture evolves. In another 125 years Christmas may look a lot different from the way we celebrate it these days.

There are constant reminders of our pagan past all around us, even if most of us don’t recognize them.  Christmas and Easter celebrations are well-known examples, but even the names of the days of the week derive from our pagan roots.

The ancient Greeks named the days after the seven known bodies in the solar system (designating each day according to which heavenly body was believed to preside over it). Germanic people adapted those names to the names of some of their gods, and that is how they made it into English.  Thus:

Sunday–Sun’s Day
Monday–Moon’s Day
Tuesday–Tiw’s Day
Wednesday–Odin’s Day
Thursday–Thor’s Day
Friday–Frige’s Day
Saturday–Saturn’s Day

Even though Saturn is a Roman god, not a Norse god, he somehow made the cut. The rest of them are Norse/Germanic gods or goddesses.

The Quakers were so uncomfortable with this that they insisted on calling the days of the week merely “First Day,” “Second Day,” etc.   A few of them still do this, but it never took hold.  Our pagan day-names are here to stay, and I think that’s just fine.

All of this reminds me that we’re half-way through December and we still haven’t decorated an evergreen tree yet.  We need to get on that.  Our tradition is to top the tree with a decapitated cosmonaut.  That tradition derives not from the forests of Bavaria, but rather from our young son’s often bizarre taste and sense of humor.  We’re holding on, but I doubt that tradition’s staying power.

Hoping all of y’all are enjoying the season.

12 comments on “Happy Saturn’s Day

  1. The tree at work has a dinosaur at the top, with wings and a halo. A new tradition, evolved from the dinosaurs that inhabit our display case and who have apparently improved their behavior through living in a library. They have set out this Christmas to recreate the gingerbread village they destroyed in last year’s display, and this particular dinosaur has apparently become angelic.


    • Bill says:

      I love that.
      Our tree (assuming we ever get it up) is decorated mainly with things our children made when they were little, including a dreidel our daughter made at school and the aforementioned cosmonaut. Our son’s class was given the materials and told to make an ornament. For some reason, he ended up making an cosmonaut (why a cosmonaut rather than an astronaut? I have no idea). We allowed them to decide where their ornaments would go and that is how Sergei came be atop our tree. Over the many years since, Sergei lost his head, but not his place at the top of the tree.


  2. A Typical First Day (Sunday) Schedule at Fresh Pond

    Meeting for Worship, 10 to 11 am

    Worship begins as soon as the first person is seated in our circle. First Day School attenders and their teachers quietly join the meeting at an appointed time.
    My paternal grandparents were “Friends” at Snow Camp, South Fork (of the Cane Creek) and I also heard called “the Lord’s day.”


    • Bill says:

      The Friends make a lot of sense. We sometimes attend New Garden Friends Meeting in Greensboro. We’d go more often if it were closer. There are no meetings nearby.

      I think most European languages changed the name of the first day to something based on the Latin for Lord’s Day, but the Germanic folks stuck with Sun’s Day.


  3. EllaDee says:

    I think we see the commercialism because big business and retailers want us to but as evidenced by your headless cosmonaut private traditions proliferate as well. That Christmas tree farms still exist because of the seasonal demand is reassuring that their tradition continues for many.
    The G.O. and I have small traditions that have meaning only to us. An artificial Christmas tree discovered under our old house. A stuffed turkey toy we bought to commemorate our neighbour’s real turkey (who became fox dinner) after a memorable few too many drinks pre-Christmas lunch. My MIL comments that I go to too much trouble for Christmas lunch. Which I don’t. We have the same menu every year, what we consider to be Christmas food, and means something to us. And in reality, it’s very simple, pre-prepared cold food that we can eat anytime that day or over the few following, as we are on holidays.
    And although not practicing any formal religion, the local church is one house up from ours, so we go to the service along with the rest of the community and spend an hour peacefully with carols and inspirational words.
    As we spend the day apart from various family members there’s always a pleasant hour or so on the phone with them.
    Best of all, if it’s sunny we walk on the beach. If it’s raining, we snooze & listen to the rain on the roof.
    And each Christmas as we do our thing I think about and see the links to Christmas days past, changes of course, but still unbroken.


    • Bill says:

      I enjoy family traditions and think they’re a wonderful way to personalize the holidays. Thanks for sharing yours. I like learning about other people’s personalized traditions. We have others too. Walking on the beach isn’t one of them, but it sure sounds nice.


  4. shoreacres says:

    Well, after all… the Feast of the Nativity celebrates the Incarnation. How better to celebrate incarnation than by incarnating faith in traditions, symbols, stories and gifts? Are some of those traditions rooted in a “pagan” past? Of course – but we live in history, and, as T.S. Eliot likes to remind us, both time and history have been redeemed.

    One of my favorite pagan/Christian mashups is Santa Lucia. We always celebrated it in my Swedish family. I would help bake the saffron buns, and wake the household with coffee and buns in the early morning, wearing the candlelit wreath and a white robe. We never sang as beautifully as these girls, but we’d have processions at the church, too.

    Personally, I love the Italian tradition of the Presepi – manger scenes that go far beyond Joseph, Mary, Jesus and a few assorted visitors. Piece by piece Italians assemble the town burghers, carpenters, housewives – all the assorted characters of human community. Even the pet dogs and cats get a place. Here’s a marvelous example.

    I was interested in your observation that, ” Christmas these days is first and foremost about buying things and welcoming the arrival of Santa Claus.” Outside the Church, that’s probably true. Even inside the Church, it’s sometimes true. But for most people of faith, I suspect that isn’t true at all.


    • shoreacres says:

      Whoops. If WordPress would give us the ability to edit, it would be a wonderful gift!


    • Bill says:

      Across the world Christmas is celebrated in many different ways. There is a fascinating diversity of traditions. I was talking recently with a friend from Holland about their traditions. There Sinter Klauss comes on St. Nicholas Day (December 5) and brings gifts to children. They get a few toys (not a room full of stuff) and this is only for children. Adults don’t buy each other presents. Christmas itself (3 weeks later) is purely a religious holiday, celebrated with a church service and a family meal. Very low key. Not at all what we do here in the States. Our own history with Christmas is especially fascinating. In colonial Massachusetts the celebration of Christmas was actually illegal, and it was generally not celebrated by American protestants until the 1800s. It wasn’t really a significant part of our culture until the second half of the 19th century. It wasn’t even made into a federal holiday until the 1870s. It seems to me that the way we celebrate today (as a whole) was largely determined by Madison Avenue–and that way of doing things is spreading across the globe, along with McDonalds and Starbucks.

      You may be right about most people of faith, but judging from what they tend to do (as opposed to what they tend to say), I don’t see much difference between the way most of them celebrate Christmas and the way unbelievers do. But I do know some folks who are doing some beautiful things to refocus and redeem Christmas. I didn’t mean to paint everyone with the same brush.


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