Winter solstice festivals through the ages

The celebration of the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, is probably as old as human settlements and agriculture, if not older. Although the real winter cold is yet to come, the days are getting longer again. The crop has been brought in, there is not much outside work to be done, the animals have fattened up during autumn, outside it is dark and cold while inside the house you have a nice fire burning to keep warm, and the year’s wine and beer is ready to drink. What would be more obvious than to celebrate?

The old Persian Yalda-festival is a time of family gatherings, of feasting, and of reciting poetry, even of telling the future by interpreting randomly chosen poems. Pomegranates and nuts are a must.

A similar mid-winter festival was the Nordic Yule. In the Scandinavian languages Christmas is still called “jul“. The tradition of the Yule log, a large wooden log that keeps the fire lit for days in the fireplace, is still present in several European countries, be it as an actual fire log or as the synonymous cake in the shape of a wooden branch.

In Ancient Rome the festivities started on December 17th with the Saturnalia, which went on for several days, leading up to the Dies Natalis Solis Invicti on December 25th, the festival of the invincible sun, and the origin of our Christmas date (the Bible doesn’t mention when Jesus was born). The Saturnalia were a time of leisure for everybody, including the slaves, when social roles were reversed, or at least levelled, when gambling, overeating and excessive drinking were permitted. Everybody, free Romans and slaves alike, would dress up in colourful gowns and feast together – unthinkable during the rest of the year. After a public sacrifice in the temple of Saturn, celebrations would continue in private. People would make each other little gifts such as the sigillaria, small dolls that might represent a reminiscence to earlier human sacrifices. Celebrating parties chose, or drew by lot, a King of Saturnalia who ruled for the time of the festival. This custom might well be the origin of the “Lord of Misrule” that is still common in some parts of Europe (just think of the French Galette de Roi), and was widespread during the Middle Ages. In general, medieval Christmas must have been much closer to the over-indulging, somehow orgiastic celebrations of the ancient Saturnalia than our 19th century family-friendly version. In fact, Medieval Christmas must have been quite a party. Only the Protestant reformation changed that, in the long-term even in most Catholic countries, frowning upon all kinds of serious feasting.

Saturnalia_by_Antoine_Callet
Saturnalia, by Antoine-François Callet (1783)

Nowadays we are back to over-indulgence, but rather in a purely consumerist way. In an agricultural society, nobody would have dared to waste resources of any kind, no matter how hard they partied.

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