The History of Winter Solstice Celebrations BEFORE Christmas
Long before there was a holiday known as Christmas and even before a baby was born in Bethlehem, people around the globe still took the time to celebrate on some of the darkest nights of the year. In many cultures it was their way of bring light to the dark and celebrating the new year that would soon be upon them. But what exactly were these celebrations and where were they celebrated? Let’s dive on in.
The first thing I would like to point out that may baffle some very religious souls out there (I am not trying to offend anyone in any way by saying that) is that celebrating the Winter Solstice was originally mainly a pagan holiday. In fact many throughout early European history took the time to celebrate the return of light and the birth of a new year of prosperity within the darkest days of the month.
Some examples of this would be in Scandinavian culture where many celebrated (and still celebrate) Yule or the winter solstice. This celebration can last days and even into January. In the past, this celebration of Nordic regions included feasted on fresh meat from their livestock. During this time period it was easier to kill livestock than providing food for it during the harsh winter months. They would feast while logs (hence the Yule Log) brought in by the men of the family burned on the fire. The fire signified how long the feast would last and also symbolized the rebirth of new livestock and the coming of longer days. Over time when Christianity became more widespread, the customs of Yule in Nordic culture has evolved. Although many in the Wiccan culture still celebrate Yule as the winter solstice and birth of the solstice sun, many in Scandinavian culture who have molded to the Christian ways usually celebrate Yule during a time that more closely aligns with Christian holidays.
Rome’s version of the winter solstice is where things get a bit … interesting. For anyone who may be curious where the writers of the purge got their ideas from, you might want to continue reading. This holiday, or should I say month, was called Saturnalia. Saturnalia began a week prior to the winter solstice and lasted up to an entire month. During this time all schools closed to allow everyone to participate in the ‘festivities.’ The point of the holiday was the celebrate the God of Agriculture, Saturn, but over time had turned into a much more interesting concept. For those of you who have seen Disney’s version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, this of Topsy Turvy Day.
During this month, Romans flipped their rules and ways upside down. The poor could act like the rich, gender roles were reversed, wine and food were abundant, and basically just about anything was fair game. Laws became scarce and very lenient during this time which allowed many to basically do whatever they wanted. Casual right? The Romans clearly knew how to party hard.
Many during this time also celebrated other holidays within Saturnalia like the celebration of children on Juvenalia or the birthday of the infant god Mithra, but overall it was a pretty wild time. Especially to celebrate it for a full month. But of course over time, Christianity became more pronounced and their culture changed.
Overall, many European cultures celebrated the winter solstice originally by feasting or worshiping to different Gods within their individual religions. Once Christianity spread and times changed, the idea of Christmas came to be. But Christmas didn’t fully become the family-time and loving holiday we know today until the 19th century.
It wasn’t until Americans in the early 1800s decided to change the holiday from a time of partying and unruly behavior (not that that doesn’t still occur today) to one of family time and togetherness. Then of course came Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol in 1843 where the perspective of Christmas was evolved once again. This was where the importance of giving back and helping others became a tradition during the colder months. WHICH IS WHY I HIGHLY RECOMMEND WATCHING THE MAN WHO INVENTED CHRISTMAS WITH DAN STEVENS. It is literally how Charles Dickens got the inspiration for the book and it is one of the best Christmas movies I have ever seen. Such a great message.
ANYWAYS. There ya have it folks. Christmastime wasn’t always Christmastime, but the winter months have always seemed to lead to partying and worshipping to give hope to everyone dealing with the darkness of the winter months.