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The Long Night: Ancient Winter Solstice Celebrations

pagan monuments often lined up with the sunrise on the winter solstice

As each day passes after the autumn equinox, darkness creeps in minute by minute. This happens every September in the Northern hemisphere, marking the beginning of fall and the dwindling of daylight that culminates in the winter solstice, when the night is at its longest. It can be difficult to deal with this onset of darkness, especially in places where it sets in early and lingers late. 

Even if you live in Nome, Alaska, where the winter solstice provides the daylight equivalent of one viewing of Titanic, you can consider yourself lucky. Imagine how this onslaught of long, cold nights felt to ancient people. Many cultures saw the Sun as the bringer of life and warmth, so its slow disappearance was highly disconcerting. Naturally, they staved off the winter scaries with a party.

We Like to Party 

No matter who you were in the ancient world, the seasons were of vital importance. You marked the ebb and flow of time by your harvests, which ensured your survival or demise. While the typical ancient person went through life believing gladiator blood cured epilepsy or that tiny demons lived in cabbage, they were at least on top of seasonal changes. And it didn’t escape their attention that after the longest night, daylight began to creep back into their lives.

A Druid Display 

That meant that a celebration was in order to hasten the sun’s return. One of the oldest is Alban Arthan, Welsh for “Light of Winter.” Steeped in Druidic traditions, it was a time of death and renewal during which people observed the demise of the old sun and ushered in the birth of a new one. A fresh sun meant the renewal of Earth and all of its flora and fauna. 

Newgrange, a prehistoric monument built by Neolithic people in Ireland around 3200 BCE, could be significant to Alban Arthan. Older than Stonehenge, the site consists of a large circular mound with a stone entrance and interior chambers. No one is sure what its purpose was, but curiously, it’s aligned with the rising sun on the winter solstice. Once a year, the rising sun shines directly through an opening and floods the carvings inside with light for about 17 minutes. Perhaps it was simply an ancient way of telling when the days would get longer again, or maybe Newgrange’s decorator just wanted some credit. 

carvings at newgrange, thought to be related to the winter solstice
these swirls didn’t carve themselves!

Currently, light doesn’t reach the inner chamber until about four minutes after sunrise. Based on calculations that follow the precession of Earth, 5,000 years ago first light would’ve penetrated the entrance exactly at sunrise. Dramatic. 

Pliny wrote in his Natural History (without much evidence), that on the solstice, the Chief Druid would use a golden sickle to chop mistletoe from an ancient oak. Fellow druids waited beneath with a sheet held aloft to catch the falling mistletoe before it touched the ground. Roman imagineers aside, the takeaway from Alban Arthan is that everything is always changing. Best to let the old go and embrace the new. A sentiment we admire but will promptly sweep aside as we discuss more old stuff.

The Feast of Juul

No, we’re not talking about a holiday for vaping. The Feast of Juul was a pre-Christian festival that Scandinavians observed at the December solstice. They lit fires to symbolize the returning Sun, which brought heat, light, and life. They were also probably really cold. Ancient Germanic people considered this a ripe time for some good old fashioned sacrifice and the drinking of ale. They also collected blood from the slaughter and smeared it over basically everything.

sure, why not

Three toasts were in order. The first went to Odin. The second was for Njörðr and Freyr to ask for good harvests and peace. The third went to the king, of course. After that, you toasted to the memory of dead kinsfolk. People got toasty. It’s thought that Yule was originally held on the winter solstice, until Haakon Haraldsson, the king of Norway, rescheduled it. This was in a bid to coincide with Christian Christmas celebrations, as Haakon was trying to get his folk to convert. Customs like the Yule log, decorating a tree, and wassailing can be traced back to these Norse origins. 

The Yule log traveled to other European countries like Germany, England, France, and more. You can’t allow it to burn entirely, however. That’s so you can keep a piece of it as a token of good luck. You also used it as kindling for next year’s log. This way you could bridge the year before with the present one in a cycle of light. 

Saturnalia

Everybody likes to talk about Saturnalia because it has come to represent the pinnacle of Roman debauchery. Dedicated to the agricultural god Saturn, people celebrated this ancient Pagan holiday in mid-December from the 17th to the 23rd. What began as a one-day affair turned into a three, then five-day situation by royal decree. (Thank you, Caligula). Even with that, everyday citizens typically reveled for a full week. 

While Saturn is a mysterious figure, historians believe he was thought to have ruled over an age of prosperity. This would account for the raucous frivolity. So move on over, Bacchus. 

painting of bacchus, Roman god of agriculture, wine, and fertility
harsh.

People skipped work and school during Saturnalia, and business and many legal proceedings stopped. There were games, gambling, feasting, and socializing. The normal social order was disrupted, grudges were forgiven, and friends exchanged gifts. Those included taper candles called cerei, which represented the light returning after the solstice. 

Some of the more unusual traditions involved a temporary release of burden for slaves. They weren’t officially free, but they could eat in the same room as the masters. Sometimes the masters would serve the slaves, or else allow a little insolence. Hopefully, this week of inverted norms would suffice to quell future rebellions. Slaves could also drink in public and gamble, while ordinary citizens tossed their togas aside for an even more informal garment. Enter, the synthesis.

Reserved for dinner and lounging at home, syntheses were colorful garments prized by the fashionable men and women. Wearing one in public life was usually a faux pas, except during Saturnalia when everything was topsy turvy. The only person who could get away with wearing a loosely-belted synthesis on the regular was emperor Nero and even he caught some flack for it. 

The Saturnalia was also presided over by a king chosen especially for the occasion. Officially labeled the Saturnalicius princeps (leader of the Saturnalia), you might also call him the Lord of Misrule. If that sounds familiar, it’s because this tradition and many others popped up in medieval Christian communities at Christmas. 

Christmas 

sacred heart of jesus
what did you get me?

After Roman Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, it wasn’t long until old Pagan rituals and traditions morphed into Christmas. And while Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ, December 25th is not his birthday. No one knows what year or month Jesus was born, so the selection of a date in mid-December is telling. 

For the first few hundred years of Christianity, most people were more concerned with Epiphany and Easter. Once the Roman elite began to transition from Pagan to Christian, it seemed like a good idea to incorporate a birthday celebration for the son of God into a season already filled with festivals. It would be easier to get people on board that way. 

December 25 also already marked an auspicious day: Dies Natalis Solis Invicti (Birthday of the Unconquerable Sun). This winter solstice feast day honored several solar deities, including Mithras, Elagabal, and Sol. This time marked the revitalization of the sun and the defeat of winter. There’s that theme of renewal again. 

Shalako 

Celebrated by the Zuni of North America, Shalako is a series of ceremonies and dances conducted at the winter solstice, usually following the harvest. The Zuni are a Pueblo Indian group who mostly live in New Mexico these days. The shalakos bring good fortune, numerous healthy children, and abundance. 

zuni girl balancing a pot
ain’t no thang

After praying, fasting, and observing the sun for several days, the head priest, or Pekwin, announces the rebirth of the sun with a call. That signals celebrants to rejoice and dance, carrying on for four days. The date of the celebrations changes every year depending on when the 49th day past the tenth full moon lands. The Zuni celebrate the Shalako Festival to this day. 

Yalda Night

Yalda Night is the Iranian answer to the winter solstice and dates to about 8,000 years ago. Occurring on — you guessed it — the longest night of the year, Yalda Night is the night between the last day of fall and the first day of winter. The morning after is a joyous one, because the Sun successfully vanquished its evil nemesis, darkness. Naturally, you needed to celebrate such a victory. 

Iranians did just that by gathering together with relatives and staying awake until dawn. That way, the evil powers and destructive spirits of the night couldn’t catch you unawares. You’d munch on various nuts and share the last fruits of summer while enjoying storytelling from your elders. A few fruit-based superstitions still linger to the present day. For instance, if you eat watermelon, the summer heat won’t get to you later. Eat a few carrots, pomegranates, pears, and green olives and you won’t get stung by a scorpion. Finally, garlic is a solid choice if you don’t want to have pain in your joints. 

Inti Raymi

For the Inca, the winter solstice was a time to honor their most venerated deity, Inti. And if you’re wondering what that means in Quechua, it’s “sun.” In the ancient Peruvian city Cuzco, the Inti Raymi was the most important of four ceremonies. Celebrated in the city plaza, the festivities lasted for nine days. There were vibrant dances, processions, and sacrifices to ensure a bountiful harvest.

inti, the incan sun god worshipped at the winter solstice
Inti, pictured here being v cute

This ceremony served to symbolize the origin of the Inca, celebrate the new year, and herald good days. Inti Raymi isn’t as old as more ancient revelries like Saturnalia, with its first iteration occuring in 1412. Catholic Spanish colonizers and priests banned it after 1535 because they were jerks. Now the holiday has been reconstructed and is celebrated in indigenous cultures throughout the Andes with music, costumes, and food. 

Ziemassvētki 

If you’re interested in rolling Jesus’ birthday and winter solstice celebrations into one holiday, the Latvian Ziemassvētki is for you. In ancient times there were activities reminiscent of Yule, like log pulling and tree decorating. Some partook in a ritual meal of shelled barley or wheat boiled in a pig’s head. They served this dish up with peas and beans. 

Another tradition incorporated traveling ķekatas or mummers. These were people dressed in masks who went from town to town blessing others to drive evil spirits away. That included a leader called Father Budēļi, who brought his “ferrule of life” to whip everybody with. A nice beating gave you health, fertility, and probably a few welts. Ancient mummers favored bear masks because nothing frightens an evil spirit like a loud growl. Some dressed as death, donning a white sheet and holding a wooden dagger smudged with red to symbolize blood. These death costumes also involved holding a vessel containing a combustible substance to keep it aflame. This cast firelight on death’s face so that the person looked like a corpse. 

a guiser, or mummer, playing accordion
why are you like this?

Dongzhi 

The Dōngzhì Festival is one of the most important Chinese and East Asian festivals. Celebrated by the Chinese, Taiwanese, Japanese, Koreans, and Vietnamese, it harks back to ancient philosophies of yin and yang. This idea of cosmic balance suggested that yin’s dark energy was about to peak and subside. That paved the way for positive yang energy to supplant it. 

The festival originated in China during the Han Dynasty. Like other winter solstice holidays around the world, it meant relief from brutal conditions was on its way. It was a time to bond with family, nourish the body, and dream of the warmth and light to come. 

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