Photo by Wesley Blalock.
As the human species moved further away from the temperate climate of its Mesopotamian and tropic birthplaces, the detrimental physical and psychological impacts of the shorter winter days became apparent. The effects of seasonal living became interwoven into our mythological and genealogical fabric. Celebrating the turning of the seasons at the winter solstice became one way people living so closely to the land coped with the most difficult time of the year to survive.
During the winter solstice, the Earth’s tilted axis aims the Northern Hemisphere away from the sun. The solstice is a point in time when the Northern Hemisphere is at its farthest tilt. Here the “sun stands still” (the literal meaning of the term “solstice”) and human cultures rejoice in the beginning of the end of their darkest winter days.
The winter solstice has had far reaching influence. In modern times, Christians all over the world celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ on Christmas, which falls on December 25. However, it is believed that this date was chosen to offset older pagan celebrations of the solstice such as Saturnalia and Natalis Invicti. Some believe that celebrating the birth of the “true light of the world” was set in synchronization with the December solstice because from that point onwards, the days began to have more daylight in the northern hemisphere.
The present-day custom of lighting a Yule log at Christmas is believed to have originated in the bonfires associated with the feast of Juul –coming from the Germanic culture that dominated most of northern Europe, giving us the word yule, and the tradition of burning a yule log to ward off evil spirits. The use of mistletoe and holly on Christmas was also taken from ancient pagan worship ceremonies which Christians sought to circumvent by allowing for some adoption of old practices within the new holiday.
In Ancient Rome, the winter (December) solstice festival Saturnalia began on December 17 and lasted for seven days. It was held to honor Saturn, the father of the gods and was characterized by the suspension of discipline and reversal of the usual order. Grudges and quarrels were forgotten while businesses, courts and schools were closed. Wars were interrupted or postponed and slaves were served by their masters.
Masquerades often occurred during this time. It was traditional to offer gifts of imitation fruit (a symbol of fertility), dolls (symbolic of the custom of human sacrifice), and candles (reminiscent of the bonfires traditionally associated with pagan solstice celebrations). A mock king was chosen, usually from a group of slaves or criminals, and although he was permitted to behave in an unrestrained manner for seven days of the festival, he was usually killed at the end. The Saturnalia eventually degenerated into a week-long spree of debauchery and crime – giving rise to the modern use of the tern saturnalia, meaning a period of unrestrained license and revelry.
In many cultures around the world, winter solstice celebrations continue today. Chaomos marks the winter solstice festival of the Kalasha people of Pakistan. Celebrated for at least seven days the festival honors Balomain, a demigod who once lived among the Kalasha and did heroic deeds. Every year, his spirit comes to the valleys to count the people, collect their prayers, and take them back to Tsiam, the mythical land where the Kalasha originated, and to Dezao, the omnipotent creator god.
The celebration begins with the purification of women and girls: they take ritual baths, and then have water poured over their heads as they hold loaves of bread cooked by the men. A man waves burning juniper over the head of each woman, murmuring, “Sooch ” (“Be pure”). On the following day, the men and boys are purified. They, too, take ritual baths and are then forbidden to sit on chairs or beds until evening when the blood of a sacrificed goat is sprinkled on their faces. The celebration continues with singing and chanting, a torchlight procession, dancing, bonfires, and festive eating of special bread and goat tripe.
The folklore of Alpine countries with Germanic roots contains a mythical character that is a far jump from the traditionally known Saint Nicholas. Krampus, a beast-like creature usually demonic in appearance is said to capture particularly naughty children in his sack and carry them away to his lair. To symbolize this, young men dress up as the Krampus and roam the streets frightening children with rusty chains and bells. Closer to the winter solstice during Krampuslauf, celebrants dress as Perchta “the bright one,” and run around the city demanding schnapps to fuel and honor this wild pagan spirit of Germanic folklore.
Celebrating “Krampus Run 2012” in Anthering, Austria. Photo by Host Herzog.
For an unknown period, Lá an Dreoilín or Wren Day was celebrated in Ireland, the Isle of Man and Wales on December 26. Festivities involved crowds of people, called wrenboys, taking to the roads in various parts of Ireland, while dressed in motley clothing, wearing masksor straw suits, and accompanied by musicians. Previously the practice involved the killing of a wren, and singing songs while carrying the bird from house to house, stopping in for food and merriment.
Soyalangwul is the winter solstice ceremony of the North American Zuni and Hopi peoples. The main purpose of the ritual is to ceremonially bring the sun back from it’s long winter slumber, it also marks the beginning of another cycle of the Wheel of the Year, and is thus a time for purification. Pahos (prayer sticks) are used to bless all the community; including their homes, animals, and plants. The sacred underground ritual chambers of the Zuni and Hopi known as “kivas” are opened to mark the beginning of the season of the gods (Kachina).
Though many of the world’s cultural traditions marking the winter solstice have become less extreme in nature — sacrifices are no longer common — humankind continues to celebrate the turn of the solar tide each December in unique ways that help us to appreciate how our ancestors dealt with the challenges of survival.