Happy Holidays everyone!
Well… I am still not quite back to the normal blog schedule. I am working on it through!
Did you know that yesterday was the 21st of December? Of course you did… But do you know what the 21st and 22nd of December is? Besides being after Hanukkah, and before Christmas and Kwanzaa that is.
Last night was the longest night of the year. That means it is time to enter the wonderful world of research.
Alright… I missed posting last week… But I am still giving into my temptation to learn about a few of the holidays in December. I am planning on writing posts about the history of Christmas and Kwanzaa as well, but last night was Winter Solstice. And that calls for a special post of its own.
I know I know, this is supposed to be a blog about writing… well… I will post something writing related later. Do not worry. But I am still not going to tell you want it is: that is a secret.
Alright, back to the 21st of December.
Solstice is one of the oldest holidays; yes, it is far older than Christmas.
Winter Solstice means that today is officially winter, but do not despair! It also means that the nights will start to become shorter again.
There are numerous things to think about regarding Solstice and just as many different ways that it has been celebrated. Just like all things regarding history, there are multiple different versions; I have tried to put together a brief history but I am sure that a few things are missing.
Funny Fact: Solstice is one of the reasons why Christmas is held in December and not spring. But I will explain more about that in my post about Christmas…
Solstice is one variation off of many… Yule is German; Saternalia is Roman; the Dongzhi Festival is Chinese, but there are also Japanese, Korean and Taiwanese versions; the Mayans, Incas, and many Native tribes have also had their own versions of Solstice.
Also, do you remember that thing called Stonehenge? Yes? Stonehenge is also linked to Solstice.
Why are there so many versions of Solstice? If you live somewhere on earth, it is quite possible that someone who used to live where you do now has celebrated Solstice.
Come, please step inside the stone circle… We have somewhere to go.
Solstice means: ‘the sun stands still’. Why does the sun stand still? On the 21st of December, the Earth is at a tilt with the North Pole pointing to the star Polaris; this means that the sun will rise farther south than any other day of the year and create the longest night of the year.
Now… I cannot sneak into an ancient peoples’ minds, but I will try ponder what those who first saw solstice might have thought…
Imagine that you are tending your house and the days are becoming shorter and shorter; someone has said that day might cease to exist entirely… what can you possibly do? Just as with many things, those who believe in gods or goddesses (whether they are elements are something else) pray and plead for the sun to be brought back.
Solstice was the original Armageddon. Well… once people realized that the world was not going to end each December, the longest night of the year became a celebration. At least, that seems right; who knows… History is a mystery. It is hard to be exact.
But it is time to go back to what is known about the 21st of December…
To begin: It seems that no one knows when Solstice was first celebrated; but it most certainly has been celebrated for centuries. Because there are so many different versions, here is a bit of history about a few of them:
Saternalia was an ancient Roman festival to honor Saturn. It consisted of seven days of feasting and a complete turn-over of the social hierarchy; slaves would be served by their masters, people would gamble, and crime was often permitted.
It sounds like quite a large amount of chaos; and it seems as though it was. Saternalia usually began on the 17th of December and ended on the 23rd… over the course of that time: people would gather in the Temple of Saturn, privately give gifts, and eat far more than usual. Food always seems to be included in celebrations.
It sounds pretty fun right? Well, mostly. Saternalia often ended in a human sacrifice; most of the time, this person was either a criminal or a slave who would be treated as a ‘king’ over the course of the festival; before being sacrificed at the very end. It is hard to know if this tradition of sacrifice began when Saternalia was modified from its original form in 217 BCE, or earlier. But I will leave that up to you to learn about if you wish.
Now, what was the reason for Saternalia? While Saternalia was related to Solstice and the return of the sun, it was also a festival that prayed for a good harvest in the coming year. Thankfully (or unfortunately) Saternalia is not celebrated anymore, but it has influenced Christmas… Which is something that I will say more about in the post about Christmas.
Alright… Let us move onto ancient Germany and the Norse gods:
Yule is an ancient German midwinter celebration, it is also called Yuletide and occasionally Juul. Unlike Saternalia, Yule is still celebrated by many factions of Paganism and Neo-Paganism. It is also festival that has been modified by those celebrating it in the past and present; because of this, there are many different ways that it has been celebrated.
In most old versions: Yule usually included a toast to Odin, a feast with ale, the burning of a Yule log, and caroling that was called wassailing.
What was the Yule log? Nowadays, a yule log is usually associated with Christmas, but it was originally a Yule tradition! It was believed that the Yule log should burn without ceasing until it is ash. But there is conflicting information: It is also said that people would keep a small piece of the Yule log with them during the course of the next year for luck.
Of all of the Solstice related traditions, Yule has probably influenced Christmas the most… And it is one of those that has been brought back in one of largest ways.
Modern Yule traditions often mimic those that are centuries old; while occasionally adding gifts to the list of celebratory actions.
Yule could easily have its own post; but let us move on…
The Donzhi Festival is a traditional Winter Solstice Festival that has also been celebrated in Japan, Korea and Taiwan. Unlike Saternalia and Yule, the Dongzhi festival is directly related to Ying and Yang beliefs; the longer days are symbolistic of good energy and light flowing faster.
The Dongzhi festival is centered around family spending time together; Tangyuan (glutinous rice balls in a syrup or broth) are usually made to symbolize the connections between people. And dumplings are almost always included, especially in Northern China. In some places, the Dongzhi festival is treated as the new year; everyone who is involved is remind that they must behave better after the festival because they are one year older since the last Dongzhi festival.
The literal translation of Dongzhi in Mandarin means ‘winter arrival’. And winter is most certainly arriving.
Now, I am going to skip over the rest of the Dongzhi festival and jump to something much older…
Wait, what about Native traditions regarding Solstice?
Well, that is exactly where this post is going next…
Because Solstice is a astrological phenomenon, it is probably not something to forget if your life centers around the land around you. And it most certainly was not. Which is where Stonehenge, Newgrange, Woodhenge and the Serpant Mound become relevant.
There are hundreds are places around the world where people have marked the winter and summer Solstices and the paths of the sun. Winter was often a time to slaughter animals for fresh meat (hence the many traditions of feasts), and to pay even more attention than usual to the world around you.
Because there are so many places and so much history attached to each place, I am not going to try and smash all of it into this post. I will leave the research that you wish to do up to you.
However, I will say that it is possible that Solstice has been celebrated since the Neolithic age; and that is amazing.
Since I have tried to explain a bit about the history of Solstice, I think an important question comes up: how is Solstice relevant today?
We live in a world where food is imported and placed on shelves in a store; water is brought into houses by pipes; and many people spend most of their time inside. In a world where the planting seasons and the movement of the sun is not as much of a concern as it used to be, where does Solstice fit in?
One obvious answer is that it is a tradition for the people who celebrate it; another answer is that is it often thought of as an ‘alternative Christmas’ because it is not nearly as commercialized… but that still leaves a lot of unanswered questions.
In my personal opinion: I believe that Solstice will always be important, even if is it simply remembered because of its astoundingly long history and unusually long night. The question why could continue on forever.. because this post is already so long, I will leave everything else for later.
Please feel free to leave a comment with information about any of the holidays in December, or wherever you are inclined to share, if you so wish (you can click on the title of this post and scroll down to the bottom of the page). I am always open to learning new things
, especially when it involves history!
I hope you have a wonderful Solstice day! And a happy first day of winter as well!