The holiday season. There’s something about the end of the year…it’s wired into our souls…time to celebrate, time to reflect, and to look forward to the coming year. The days grow shorter and shorter until the solstice is finally achieved, and the sun begins its slow return. Those long hours of darkness are why we decorate with lights, to ward off what may be lurking in the dark, and to lift our spirits!
The last days of the year have been celebrated since the dawn of civilization.
From the Sumerians to Ancient Greece, Rome and the tribes of Northern Europe, New Year was a time to celebrate and a time to renew and prepare for the coming year and planting season. Depending on the culture, the time of New Year varied.
THE CRADLE OF CIVILIZATION
Sumerian culture didn’t have separation of church and state; their faith was tightly woven with their government so that religion and civics were one and the same. They ended their year just before the next planting at the end of March, which made a successful transition to the new year critical to survival. This was a time of renewing the king’s contract with their god Marduk…or not!…and a new king would be crowned.
The concept of “twelve days” of revelry can be traced back to them, along with many familiar rituals such as: the giving of presents, carnivals and parades with floats, door-to-door performers who sang and acted out skits (does anyone go caroling anymore?), feasting, and religious ceremonies.
For the Romans, it was Saturnalia…known for more extreme aspects of celebrating, but likely the average person celebrated in a more average manner. The festivities ran from December 17 through December 23 to honor the god Saturn, who ruled during a long-ago golden age. The holiday was an effort to recreate that lost time through feasting (both public and private), gift-giving (often accompanied by verses, not unlike greeting cards), and general revelry. Another key piece of the holiday was a reversing of societal norms: slaves ate with, or were even served by their owners, and vices, such as gambling, were allowed. And yes, they also decked their halls with greenery and lights!
The further north you are, the more festive lights you need—the higher the latitude, the shorter the winter light. The Vikings celebrated Yol or Jol in December, centered around the longest night of the year, called Mother Night. It was a celebration of the return of the sun in the coming weeks and months. Yol feasting, drinking and dancing surrounded the burning of the (yule) log—the fire must last throughout the long night for a prosperous new year. The ashes of the log were gathered and saved for the next Yol, to light the next log.
ROAD TO THE MODERN CHRISTMAS
These ancient festivals had a lot in common, and many of the customs are still familiar to us now. However, the old celebrations also shared an element of darkness—sacrifices (as were part of their religious practices), and often raucous, drunken displays in the streets, sometimes to the point of threatening, if not simply annoying.
As Christianity took hold across the world, people were hesitant to forgo their annual festivals…putting it mildly. The Church found it expedient to adopt the winter celebrations to make it easier for missionaries to convert followers. People could still come together as a community, but raise their glasses to honor Christ rather than Odin or Saturn.
The problem was the raucous bits…they just wouldn’t go away! Even after hundreds of years of Christmas, the Church and local governments too, struggled with the misbehavior associated with the holiday. What was the solution?…Domestication and commercialization. In the mid-late 1800s, the overall societal push to revere hearth and home was so strong, so thorough, that finally Christmas became the family-oriented occasion it is today. The drunken debauchery was eliminated and the gift-giving was amped up. Children became the focus thanks to Santa Claus. He began appearing in retail advertising with regularity in the 1840’s. But old Kris Kringle is a story unto himself! More on him next year!
Christmas is my favorite holiday. Like any child I loved getting gifts, but I also really cherished the family gatherings and decorations…and I still do! And now I love giving gifts. How do you feel about Christmas? Share your thoughts and favorite traditions in the comments below!
Count, Earl W., and Alison Lawson Count. 1997. 4,000 Years of Christmas. Berkeley, California. Ulysses Press.
Ferguson, Robert. 2009. Vikings: A History. New York, NY. Viking Penguin.
Guerber, Helene A. 1909/2006 reprint. Myths of the Norsemen. New York, NY. Barnes & Noble.
Nissenbaum, Stephen. 1996. The Battle for Christmas. New York, NY. Vintage Books/Random House.