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Satyr with pipe and a pipe case (Attic red-figure plate, 520–500 BC, from Vulci, Etruria

Satyr with pipe and a pipe case (Attic red-figure plate, 520–500 BCE, from Vulci, Etruria (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


From time immemorial, seasons, or more precisely, darkness and light, have determined the days on which humankind placed its festivities, regardless of cultures and religions.  In fact, nature has always prevailed, bestowing unity upon diversity. And it most certainly dictated the moment when festivities were held.

The Solstices

The Winter solstice (December 21/22 for the Northern Hemisphere; June 20/21, for the Southern Hemisphere)

Humankind has always celebrated the longest night and the longest day.  In ancient Greece, comedies and satires were associated with the winter solstice:  Kômosor Cômos, and Satyrs.  And in the Rome of Antiquity,  Saturnaliæ occurred on the day of the longest night.  On that day, the universe was upside down.  Therefore, in certain cultures, the master was suddenly slave.  In more ancient cultures, an old king was replaced and, at times, sacrificed, so a new king could be enthroned.  The old king was the pharmakos or scapegoat.

Judaism placed Hanukkah very close to the longest night of the year as did Christianity.  In fact, Christianity celebrated the twelve days Christmas.  In the Western Church, Christmas, the birth of Christ, has been celebrated on December 25th, but in the Eastern Church, January 6th, Epiphany, is the day on which the birth of Christ has been celebrated.


When Julius Cæsar established his calendar (the Julian Calendar), in 45 CE, he situated the winter solstice on December 25th, but in time, Christmas was celebrated several days before December 25th.  See Winter solstice.  Consequently, in 1582, Pope Gregory XIII (the Gregorian Calendar) brought the winter solstice back to December 22nd and, as per the directives of Council of Nicaea of 325, in the Western Church, Christmas has since been celebrated on December 25th and twelve days later in the Eastern Church.

Cæsar fixed the Spring (vernal) equinox on March 25th, but that was also changed at the Council of Nicaea.  In Western cultures, we use the Gregorian calendar which is based on the determinations of the Council of Nicaea.

  • The Summer  Solstice (June 20/21, for the northern hemisphere; December 21/22, for the Southern Hemisphere)

As for the longest day, for Christians, it is la Saint-JeanSt John’s Day, and various other feasts.

Ring Sundial

The Equinoxes, or equinoctial points

  • The Vernal Equinox (March 20/21, for the Northern Hemisphere; September 22/23, in the Southern Hemisphere)

The day on which darkness and light are of more or less equal length (equi =equal), Judaism celebrates Passover and Christians, Easter.  Easter is the day of the resurrection of Christ.  Consequently, the night before Easter Sunday, a mass is celebrated during which the Church is momentarily in complete darkness and gradually lit a candle at a time.  In earlier days, a lamb was sacrificed: the sacrificial lamb.

As for the Autumnal equinox, it is the Judaic Rosh Hashanah.  In Christianity, the day is marked by la Saint-Michel, on September 29th or the now nearly-forgotten Michaelmas.  In the Roman Catholic Church, Michael is one of three archangels, the other two are Gabriel (March 24th) and Raphael (October 24th).  But Christianity also has its archangel of death, or Esdras, the “avenging angel,” or archangel of death, named Azrael in Hebrew culture.

In Islamic culture, the four archangels are Gabriel, Michael, Raphael and Azrael.  There are slight variations in the spelling of Azrael, variations that are consistent with national languages.  The Greek Orthodox Church honours the archangels on November 8th.

The solstices and the equinoxes do not occur on a fixed and permanent day.  However, nations have situated official feasts on fixed dates.


For the moment, my purpose is

  • first to provide a concise background for liturgical and secular Books of Hours.  Liturgical “Books of Hours” are, among other texts, the Breviary and the Liber UsualisMoreover Benedictine monks and other monks observe the Canonical Hours during which psalms are recited.  Secular “Books of Hours,” such as Les Très Riches Heures de Jean de France, duc de Berry, are exquisitely-decorated books, books with illuminations or enluminures.  As we have seen, Bestiaries are also richly-decorated manuscripts, a pleasure to the eye.
  • Second, it seemed important to write about humanity’s universal observance of feasts that are embedded in the seasons, or in the degree of darkness and light.  Nature is the template.

In short, seasons and feasts correspond to natural phenomena, i. e. the degree of darkness and light.  All cultures have let the cycles of nature dictate the dates of their feasts and, as strange as this may seem, our ordinary calendars are a cultural monument.  They resemble “Books of Hours” and, generally, they are illustrated or “illuminated.”

In other words, as humankind progressed through milennia, it amassed traditions we must never forget.  They shape our lives and inhabit the imagination of all human beings, and they cross every border.


For information on ancient practices perpetuated through religious rituals, tales, and literature in general, one’s best source is Sir James George Frazer’s (1 January 1854, Glasgow – 7 May 1941, Cambridge) The Golden Bough, A Study in Magic and Religion, published between 1890 and 1915.  The Golden Bough is a Project Gutenberg‘s publication.

composer: Antonio Vivaldi  (4 March 1678 – 28 July 1741)
piece: The Seasons, Winter 
performers: Dénes Kovács
Budapest Symphony Orchestra
Conductor: Lamberto Gardelli
Sand animation film – Ferenc Cakó
Satyr pursuing a nymph, on a Roman mosaic

Satyr pursuing a nymph, on a Roman mosaic

© Micheline Walker
5 December 2012