Tuesday 18 December 2018

Pick & Mix - a choice of seasonal celebrations - by Lu Hersey

People have been celebrating the winter solstice - welcoming a gradual return to longer days and shorter nights - for thousands of years. In fact probably for as long as we’ve been celebrating anything. 

Back in the Stone Age, our Neolithic ancestors built monuments like Stonehenge, Newgrange and Maeshowe to align with the setting midwinter sun – and since these buildings must have taken a lot of time and effort to construct, it's likely they considered the turning point of the year to be highly significant.

Midwinter solstice at Stonehenge 

Fast forward a couple of thousand years and we come to the Romans, who enjoyed a massive midwinter knees-up at Saturnalia. This week-long festival ran from 17-24 December and celebrated Saturn, the Roman god of time. The celebrations involved all the usual feasting, gift giving and other popular Roman activities (which we won’t go into here), with the additional attraction of some role reversal game playing – men dressing as women, masters serving slaves, that kind of thing.

Saturnalia - midwinter feasting and excess in ancient Rome

The Chinese also started marking the winter solstice over two thousand years ago, with the festival of Dongzhi (meaning ‘winter arrives’). The festival is connected to the Chinese concept of yin and yang (the principle that all things exist as inseparable and contradictory opposites - dark/light, feminine/masculine etc), and celebrates the point of the year when the dark yin energy starts to fade and the light yang energy grows stronger. Occurring only six weeks before the Chinese New Year, the festival was believed to be the day when everyone gets one year older. Although no longer an official holiday in China, it’s still a time when many Chinese families get together to share special food and good wishes for the coming year.

Dongzhi is still celebrated throughout China, even though no longer officially a holiday

Iranians traditionally celebrate the winter solstice at the ancient festival of Shab-e Yalda (meaning ‘night of birth’), when the sun god, Mithra, triumphs over darkness. Friends and family gather together on the longest night to protect each other from evil, burning fires and candles to light their way through the darkness. Many stay awake all night to welcome the sunrise, when evil is banished and the light returns. The festivities also involve wish-making, feasting on nuts, pomegranates and other festive foods, and reading poetry.

Shab-e Yalda - an ancient solstice celebration from Iran
The Romans hijacked a version of Shab-e Yalda into their own celebration of Mithras’s birthday (slight name change, but still the sun god), which was held on 25 December. Mithraism, a secretive cult popular with the Roman military, only lasted for a few centuries before it was banned throughout the Roman empire and replaced by Christianity.

Which brings us to Christmas. No one really knows for sure when Jesus was born. Sorry if that’s thrown your Christmas slightly, but the truth is he could have been born anytime, as the gospels don’t specify a date. Some early Christians thought March 25 (traditionally the start of spring) or even May 20 would be a good date to mark the event, but later settled on December 25 (possibly to replace that earlier Roman debauchery at Saturnalia, or Mithras’s birthday).

Margaret Tempest illustration for Little Grey Rabbit's Christmas

Over time, Christmas has come to embrace some previously pagan Yule customs from Scandinavia (where the idea of Christmas trees, wreaths, flying reindeer and yule logs comes from) and the hanging of mistletoe (bit of a druid thing). But as well as being a midwinter celebration, Christmas is still, metaphorically at least, a time of returning light to the world with the birth of Jesus.

Truth is, most of us feel happier as the world tilts on its axis and days start getting longer again. And whatever your beliefs may be, surely that’s enough to let the ancient annual tradition of feasting and carousing begin…

Lu Hersey


Penny Dolan said...

What a fine collection of celebrations, Lu. Wishing you a happy holiday too!

MissMaddyChats said...

Christmas is always such a lovely time as everyone is so happy!

Sue Bursztynski said...

Thanks, Lu! Where I live, it’s the summer solstice and the traditional celebrations involve backyard barbecues and seafood lunches. Mind you, there are some folk who want a meal like those in the northern hemisphere and others who have “Christmas in July” so they can experience the cold Nothern Hemisphere Christmas.

LuWrites said...

Thanks Penny and Sue - realised (this morning, far too late!) that the post had absolutely nothing to do with children's writing. Oops. Wondered briefly whether to add in 'and take a break from writing' somewhere, but realise it's a bit late now :) And apologies for the Northern hemisphere centricness of the post, Sue! X