Although we think of Christmas as being the big event of winter, to most of the cultures of the ancient world the winter solstice was a much more important date for festivities. Occurring on either the 21st or 22nd December in the northern hemisphere, the winter solstice is the shortest day of the year. For ancient peoples, such a day carried great significance as it marked the start of winter, a time of dangerous cold and also hope for the coming of brighter and warmer days. This is even true for Britain, with Stonehenge being a lasting monument of ancient winter solstice festivities. Besides physical monuments, many cultures commemorated the day with winter festivals.
Saturnalia: the Roman Winter Solstice Celebration
Perhaps one of the most famous ancient winter festivals is the Saturnalia. Celebrated by the Romans, the festival took place on the 17th December and, after several expansions over time, lasted for 6 days. Following the month-long festival of Brumalia, which honoured the Roman gods of agriculture, Saturn, Ceres, and Bacchus, the Saturnalia focused solely on Saturn.
The festival honoured the mythical golden age in which Saturn ruled the universe and mankind didn’t have to work hard and farm for food as the earth simply provided it for them. During the festival, people would give gifts, drink, feast, and gamble. An important part of the festival was a role reversal, in which slaves would be looked after by their masters and allowed to join in the feast. Another aspect was the allocation of someone to be the ‘Saturnalicius princeps’ (Ruler of the Saturnalia). This individual would be the “king” of the party, giving silly commands to others that would add to the fun of the festival.
The Evolution from Saturnalia to Christmas
Later in Roman history, Saturnalia was followed by the festival ‘Dies Natalis Solis Invictis’ on December 25th (when the Romans thought the winter solstice was). It celebrated the sun (worshipped as the god Sol) defeating the dark winter night with the coming of longer days. Little is known about this festival. Most scholars believe that it was not particularly popular due to Sol being a relatively minor deity in the Roman world.
Instead, its notability comes from its date, December 25th, which has been argued by some to be the reasoning behind the timing of our modern Christmas. However, given that there’s no real evidence to support this, as well as some arguing that Christmas was celebrated before the institution of the Roman festival, it seems unlikely that this is the case. Instead, the timing for Christmas is more likely reflective of a general popularity for festivals around the winter solstice, as can be seen in many cultures around the world.
Ancient Winter Celebrations held around the World
For example, the festival of Shab-e Yalda originates in ancient Iran and is still celebrated as a cultural holiday to this day. The festival involves families eating and drinking together, staying up late, and reading poetry. Watermelon and pomegranates are also considered to be particularly traditional and lucky for this holiday. For those of the Zoroastrian religion, who celebrate this holiday as a religious festival, the winter solstice is a particularly dark day. It is believed that on this day the forces of evil are at their strongest, explaining the tradition for families to gather and keep safe through the night.
Another ancient solstice festival still celebrated today is from China and is called Dongzhi. Based on ancient yin yang philosophy, the day celebrates the coming of longer days and a flow of positive energy with it. It is celebrated with families coming together, eating sticky rice balls, and honouring their ancestors. Similar festivals with ancient roots can be found in many other cultures across the world, such as Inti Raymi in Peru, Toji in Japan, and Makar Sankranti in India.
Inti Raymi is celebrated in June, but since Peru is in the Southern Hemisphere it is midwinter solstice for them. In honour of the sun god Inti, the Incans fasted for three days and then celebrated on the solstice with ritual sacrifice, offerings of chicha (a sacred beer made from fermented corn) and fires. The Spanish conquest of Peru banned the festival, but it has been revived in the 20th century.
Toji in Japan is a traditional practice still done today, and is particularly sacred for farmers as they celebrate the return of the sun to nurture their crops after the long winter. Bonfires are traditional and huge bonfires burn on Mount Fuji on December 22nd. Another practice is to take warm baths scented with yuzu, a Japanese citrus fruit, either in private or public baths in the hot springs.
Makar Sankranti is still celebrated in India in early January and is in honour of Surya, the sun god. Bathing in holy rivers such as the Ganges is an important part of the festival, as well as making and sharing sweets. It is a time of socializing and celebrating with family, and once again bonfires are common to celebrations.