December brings about myriad holidays and celebrations that keep out the bitter cold and bring warmth to everyone’s lives. Whether it’s Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Festivus, or something else, nearly everyone is in the holiday spirit! In this series of posts, we’re looking at winter holidays celebrated by ancient civilizations, some of which are still recognized today.
The winter solstice occurs each year on the day that the North Pole is at its furthest tilt away from the sun, resulting in the shortest day and longest night. This year, the winter solstice begins on Saturday, December 21, at 10:19 p.m. (making the 21st to the 22nd the longest night). Although meteorologically speaking, the solstice is seen as the beginning of winter, religions around the world celebrate many of their “midwinter” festivities on this day. These festivities are often associated with light, the sun, and agriculture, as the lengthening of days brings more light to the planet and thus nurtures crops.
Popular ancient celebrations that coincided with the winter solstice were:
- Germanic/Scandinavian “Yule”
This holiday was traditionally celebrated by the Norse of Scandinavia (Norway, Sweden, Denmark). As a celebration of the return of light or the lengthening of days that comes after the solstice, men brought home large logs to set alight on one end. Feasting would begin when the fire was lit and would end when the log burned out on the other side, which normally took about 12 days.
As the Norse became Christianized in the early 1000s CE, they brought their former pagan celebrations with them and those traditions slowly became adopted by Christians. Today, Christians celebrate Christmas with “yule logs,” either in cake form or in roaring fireplaces surrounded by holiday food, song, and drink.
- Roman “Saturnalia,” “Juvenalia,” and “Brumalia” / Mithra “Dies Natalis Solis Invicti”
See Part 1 of this series to learn more about Saturnalia, a weeklong celebration of the Roman agricultural deity Saturn, which brought a slew of festivities focused around feasting, partying, and role reversal. Similarly, Juvenalia celebrated children with a feast on the winter solstice. Brumalia celebrated both Saturn and Ceres as deities of the fields and agriculture, along with Bacchus, the god of wine. Dies Natalis Solis Invicti was a holiday celebrated by the cult of the sun god, Sol. Mithra was a Persian god of light adopted by the Romans who later became combined with Sol.
- Iranian/Persian “Yalda Night”
Shab-e Yalda or “Yalda Night” was celebrated in what is now modern-day Iran. During this festival, bonfires and torches lit up the night in order to banish the darkness of the longest night of the year. When the sun rose, Persians would celebrate the sun god Mithra’s triumph against darkness. During this time, people would gather together around fires, reciting the poetry of 14th century poet Hafiz in order to keep darkness and evil spirits at bay.
- East Asian “Dongzhi”
This Chinese holiday likely began as a harvest festival and is still celebrated today. Families often come together to celebrate the past year and welcome the new. In southern China, families celebrate with tang yuan, brightly decorated rice balls, while in the north, it’s celebrated with either plain or meat-stuffed dumplings.
- Japanese “Toji”
A tradition focused on bringing luck for the new year, people often bathe in water scented with yuzu (a citrus fruit), which allegedly brings good luck and wards off colds. Kabocha squash (or Japanese pumpkin) is often eaten during this time as well to bring good luck. Massive bonfires are lit around Japan, especially on Mount Fuji, to celebrate the return of the sun and the lengthening of the day. This tradition is largely associated with farming as the return of the sun means more light for crops to grow.
- Scandinavian “St. Lucia’s Day”
St. Lucia is an early Christian saint who is associated with light, especially candles. She visited imprisoned Christians by candlelight in order to illegally feed them. The theme of light was incorporated, along with other Norse traditions, when Scandinavian people began to convert to Christianity in the 1000s CE. Young girls wore white dresses with red sashes and wore wreaths of candles on their heads to honor St. Lucia.
Many of the traditions and holidays above are still celebrated today! Interested in learning more about ancient winter holidays? Check out these resources:
- The Winter Solstice: The Sacred Traditions of Christmas by John Matthews
- The Return of the Light by Carolyn McVickar Edwards
- Yule: Rituals, Recipes, & Lore for the Winter Solstice by Susan Moonwriter Pesznecker
- Winter Celebrations (World Book)
- Ceremonies of the Seasons by Jennifer Cole
Happy Winter Holidays!
Blue Springs North Branch