Are you ready to urge the sun to return to the sky?
The winter solstice, our darkest day, is soon upon us and this is a perfect opportunity to take a moment and appreciate it as more than just a reason to decorate your house and bake cookies for family. This time of year means many things to many people around the world. Let's take a look at WHY we particularly in the nothern and western hemispheres originally started these traditions - to use them as milestones to see where we are today in modern culture.
If you are uncomfortable or unwilling to discuss or learn about Pagan, Old Norse, or otherwise Heathen (hæðen, literally "not Christian or Jewish") beliefs and traditions, turn back now. Though I would urge you to stick with it!
An early practice of feasting at this time of year was by the Norse who would raise a cup of ale to Odin (jólfaðr, Yule Father) among other gods to seek victory, peace, and even to invoke fertility for the coming spring. Additionally the Romans celebrated Saturnalia, another time of eating and drinking which celebrated the construction of the Temple of Saturn. The "Feast of Fools" allowed for revelry and even had masters giving table service to their slaves. A time of peace and equality where even a Nordic berserker was chronicled to put his duel off for three days to give reverence to Yule.
Food has always brought people together in many ways. Even in the scarce times of the winter, to celebrate even for one small period of time did wonders to bond a community and prove your hard work the rest of the year has paid off. When the night is long and cold, your fellows, friends, and family all could help provide warmth. The literal and metaphorical sacrifices that were made all come to fruition as the new and lasting sun was being born.
Tree worship has long been a part of ancient cultures. Oaks, for example, are significant to druids and is a symbol of Thor in Norse mythology. However, evergreens have always held a fascination with cultures even down into Egypt as they do not "die" in the winter. For thousands of years they have been used as a symbol of immortality or a perseverance over death. Wreaths show, literally, the circle of life. Mistletoe, too, plays major roles in the stories and beliefs of northern European pagans. This is a contributing factor to why green is a thematic color this time of year.
Along with vegetation, light is immensely important. Bonfires were set on hilltops to not only provide warmth and a night of community dancing and celebration, but were also a signal to the sun to be able to come out again. Candles in windows, hearths aglow with cooking fires all beckoned Sol Invictus to return. This in turn helped bring red into the color swath of the season. However, red was also the color of hlaut (sacrificial blood of animals) that was used to decorate feasting halls and their occupants alike with aspergillum not unlike those described in Leviticus 14:48-53.
What is a festive time without not just feasting and decorating but merrymaking too? Wassailing and mumming allowed revelers to interact with their townsfolk and kin bringing joy through song and blessing the trees, fruits, and harvest to be enjoyed at solstice. Costumes were worn, stories were told (including those about the dead and ancestors of solstices past), and traditions were continued on into...now. Here. You and I. Regardless of our religious practice, if any, here we are celebrating common roots born out of near-global common practices.
All around you is a swirl of rich heritage. It is easy to get lost in both the myriad religious aspects of it as well as overwhelmed by the secular nature it has taken. But, the magic is there. The history. The humanity. Common threads. It is something to celebrate if nothing else. If you would like to see how these pre-Christian celebrations translated over into Christianity, you would do well to study St. Bonaface and the conversion of the Germanic pagans and notable converts including King Haakon I of Norway. It was through them that heathen traditions became fused with Christian ones and were then spread further throughout the world.
Waes hael to you all and may your solstice be bright!
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BONUS - If you don't celebrate this time in a religious way, there is always "Festivus - for the rest of us!".
Also, if you want to do some quick homework, you'll note a very popular technology that may very well be in a gift you give or get is named after King Haakon's father! What could it be?