Monday, December 24, 2012

History of the Holidays

Holly Wreath

Season’s Greetings everyone!

It is indeed that time of year again. The wheel of time has turned round once more and we find ourselves at the Winter Solstice. It is a time of celebration, of gathering and merry making. It is a time of giving and gratitude. For many of us, it is Christmas time.

I always feel a great connection to the past at this time of year and not only the Christian past. The traditions of this time reach much farther back than the beginnings of Christianity. Over the millennia this very time of year has been held sacred and special by many ancient cultures, celebrated in many different ways.

We have more in common with the past than we often realize.  

As I sit by the tree in my living room, the soft glow of a thousand coloured lights gracing the paper upon which I write, I feel a common thread of tradition with those that have gone before, and those that will come long after I am dust. There is a comfort in that. 

Traditions are important for all people, all cultures. And so, I wanted to look at a few of the varied traditions of this festive season from which most of us derive some form of jollity. 

In ancient Babylon the Festival of Marduk, the god whom the Babylonians believed created the world, was celebrated at this time of year. The festival involved a twelve day feast during which time gifts were given and people visited the homes of friends and family. Sound familiar?

In the Roman Empire, the big festival at this time of year, indeed one of the biggest of the entire year, was the Festival of Saturnalia which began officially on December 17. Saturn, of course, was the Roman god of agriculture, of liberation, and of time. Fitting that the Winter Solstice festival, the time when the days would begin to get longer and the winter stores of food were used, was dedicated to him. Time moves on. 

Saturnalia was a major party for Romans. There was always lots of food, drink and gift-giving. Gifts were often small and inexpensive and included things such as lucky fruits or cakes. Saturnalia was a definite carnival atmosphere, especially for slaves for, as Saturn was also a god of liberation, for one day, slave and master exchanged roles with the masters serving the servants. Everyone could let loose. Indoors, many candles were kept burning during this darkest time of year and green boughs were hung within and without people’s homes. 

Saturnalia in Ancient Rome
Many believe the Greek festival of Kronia, a harvest festival dedicated to Kronos in July and August was the major influence on Saturnalia. At the Kronia, there were feasts and banquets and games. There was also freedom from work and social equality for a day which represented a ‘Golden Age’ in which there was total harmony, no slavery or hierarchy. Slaves were released from duties during part of the Kronia just as they were during Saturnalia. 

And of course, as with any ancient festival, offerings and sacrifices were made to the gods. The religious roots of these celebrations cannot be overstated. Ancient peoples believed the gods played a role in every aspect of daily life and each was honoured. That is one reason there were so very many festivals in the Greek and Roman calendars. 

Mithras and the Tauroctony
A couple of blog posts ago, I wrote about Mithras, Lord of Light and Truth, and now we return to him. The Persian god Mithras defeated the darkness for Ahura Mazda and in mythology, his birthday was December 25th. As a god of Light, equated with Sol Invictus, the ‘unconquered sun’, it is no wonder that the Winter Solstice, the time when the sun is reborn after the darkest days, was dedicated to Mithras. Saturn also played a large role in Mithraism as this was the name given to the highest grade of initiate in the religion – Saturn was the ‘Pater’. 

Other pre-Christian gods of light, merriment, and abundance were said to have been born during December as well, including Dionysus and the Hebrew/Phoenician god, Baal. 

The Winter Solstice was a very sacred time of year and this seems to be the most common thread through time and religions. The worship of the rising Sun, the time when the eternal Sun begins to get higher in the sky, making the days longer, warming our lives. 

At Christmas, I like to hang cedar in our home, as well as boughs of holly. It is beautiful, atmospheric, warm and sweet smelling. It is also a tradition that was practiced by the ancient Celts and Druids for whom nature was so important. 

The Celts believed holly and mistletoe were sacred and that they housed good, protective spirits. At this darkest time of year, this was important. Boughs of cedar and oak and other sacred trees were hung, often in the shape of wreathes which represented the round eternal, self-renewing sun. Even today, people gather at monuments such as Stonehenge to witness the Winter Solstice sunset, branches in hand. 

Winter Solstice at Stonehenge
Moving into the Middle Ages, we come next to the Norse and Saxon traditions of northern Europe which also filtered into Britain and with which many of us are familiar today. 

Yule was originally a pagan festival associated with the god Odin and the Wild Hunt. Before Christianity spread among the Saxons, the festival involved things such as a Yule Goat, a Yule Boar, Yule singing and of course, the Yule Log which was brought home with great ceremony and intended to burn long and bright during this dark part of the year. 

The tradition of Wassailing is, I find, one of the most interesting remnants of the pagan past. It was particular to the south west of England, especially Somerset. For hundreds of years, the people of this apple-producing region would walk out with their named King and Queen of Wassail, each with a cup of the mulled cider or ale of the same name, to sing songs to the apple trees and wood spirits of the orchards. 

Yule Log
Where I used to live, just outside of Glastonbury, Somerset, we lived among some orchards. I used to walk among the trees in the early winter mornings when the sun would rise and the branches and bushes would sparkle as the light weaved its way among the frost-encrusted world. It is an image I hold dear and I can remember wondering what it would have been like to have taken part in the singing of the Wassail songs where they were meant to be sung. 

 Many of these songs remain a part of today’s Christmas carols. Here is part of one of my favourites which dates roughly to the late medieval period:

Here we come a-wassailing
Among the leaves so green,
Here we come a wand'ring,
So fair to be seen.

Love and joy come to you,
And to your wassail too,
And God bless you and send you a happy new year,
And God send you a happy new year.

These are but a few of the long-standing traditions that we revisit year after year in some form or another, whether it is reverence for our various gods, gratitude for the birth of the Sun, or of the Son, feasting, merriment, decorating our homes and filling them with song.

This is a time of year to be enjoyed, to be grateful and charitable toward each other and our world.

So, as I raise my cup and my voice along with my family and friends this holiday season, I will also raise them along with all those who have gone before. From the ancient to the medieval and modern worlds, from the sacred forests of the Celts to the simple table at which we sit today, I remember the past and present and that, for ages, this has been a time of year when Light overcomes Dark and gods have been born. And so, the wheel of the year turns. 

To you and yours, whatever your faith or beliefs, I wish you a brilliant Winter Solstice and a Happy Christmas and New Year!

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