Though the winter solstice is associated with areas closer to the poles where the axial tilt of the earth creates extremes of temperature and lightlessness, this time of return is recognized and celebrated in equatorial lands as well. Humanity witnessed the dwindling light and wondered what they could do to bolster the sun, or the deity that represented the sun. Rituals became traditions, traditions became festivals, all with the common themes of gathering what is precious, lighting fires and making a stand against the darkness.
In some cultures, the ancient astronomers discovered by watching the sun, and the North Star, that their 360 day lunar year was actually a 365 day solar year. Presented with a handful of extra days, many cultures chose to use these as times of celebration or contemplation. The sense of a time out of time continues in the last week of December to this day. (If you have a hard time focusing on work between Christmas and New Year's, you may simply be in tune with a more ancient calendar than you have been taught to live by)
All over the world, in ancient times and today, the rituals, traditions and festivals live on. It is of interest to note how many of the traditions we associate with Christmas find their roots in these old festivals, particularly the Roman festival of Saturnalia.
The evil dragon Tiamat has stolen Tammuz, the god of all living things, from the world. His queen must descend to the Underworld to secure his return of life will cease.
A 12 day festival was instituted. Bonfires were lit to add lustre to the failing sun as people took to the streets to make a mock search for their missing god. Groups of men fought ritual battles in the streets of the city. Effigies of Tiamat, the dragon, were created and burned in great number. These bonfires served the dual purpose of using fire to draw back the light as well as representing the destruction of Tiamat by the light. Though there was the air of festival, it was very serious to them that their god knew they supported him. They were calling him back to them.
Every citizen did their part, no matter how small. The king would retire to the temples and begin a series of appeasements, hoping they would incline the god to return once he was rescued. It was the time when the king was to stand before the gods to speak for himself. Had he done well by the land that year? Had he done well by the people? In this time when all was unsure, it was the king who would have to answer for any cosmic imbalances because he was the gateway between the people and the divine.
On the 6th day of the 12 day festival, the goddess Ishtar succeeded in rescuing the God of Fertility, returning him victoriously to the earth where she took Tammuz as her husband. Tammuz was free, and as the representative of Tammuz, the king returned from the temples. There was wild revelry in the streets. The rest of the festival saw nights spent drinking and dancing, the days were spent visiting between family and friends with an exchange of gifts.
Statues of Tammuz and Ishtar were led around the city so that people would see that they were once again free. Reassured that order had once more triumphed over chaos for one more year, thus they were safe to proceed into a year that would unfurl in a predictable manner
Hopi - Soyal
The Hopi of the Southern USA celebrate Soyal (aka Soyaluna, Soyala, Sol-ya-lang-eu) which is a 20 day ceremony consisting of feasting, ritual purifications and blessings all designed to draw back the sun. Soyal also welcomes the return of the Kachinas from the Sacred Mountain. In preparation for their return, people fashion feathers and pinion needles to string, which they give to those they care about. The gift is accompanied by the wish that the Kachinas grant all the wishes of the recipient upon their return.
The Hopi saw that everything had a unique life force. Their spirit guardians and protectors, the Kachinas, represent these forces of nature. The Kachinas are numerous and varied, their visages vividly depicting their spirit force. Their return from the mountains aids the earth's recovery from winter as their vital energies enrich the land and increase the herds.
The descendants of the Anasazi have been astronomers for centuries. An elder known as the Sun Chief has the duty to watch the sun's passage across the sky. On Winter solstice, he stands at the observation point on the second mesa, facing the San Francisco peaks. The longest night was the time that the Kachinas returned from their summer home in those very peaks.
The Hopi also believed that the sun had two homes or Kivas, each at one end of its passage across the sky. When the sun rises, he is leaving his eastern home and when he sets, he returns to his western home. It was thought that while he was gone from the Hopi's sky, he was lighting the day of the underworld. On winter solstice the Sun is thought to retire to his winter home for four days. Rituals and ceremonies are conducted to remind him of his duties for he was thought to have wandered quite far at this time.
An example of such a ceremony was chronicled by the ethnologist Arlette Frigout in 1979. “One of the most significant occurs on the evening of the ninth day and consists in a dancer depicting the hesitant course of the sun returning toward the summer solstice... At Walpi, a group of Singers forces the carrier of a shield in the form of a sun to return to the correct road”
The Zuni also celebrate the return of the Kachinas
Roman - Saturnalia
For the Romans, this was a time to celebrate the ancient harvest god- Saturn. Saturn had been the king of the gods in a far off mythical past- before Jupiter and his Olympians took their thrones. It was believed that in Saturn’s time there had been a golden age where everyone was equal, everyone was deserving and no one wanted for a thing, a bawdy less civilized time of magic. It was a time of peace on earth- good will to all (men).
When Saturn was overthrown by his son Jupiter, this golden era came to an end. In Saturn’s temples he was shackled or bound by a length of wool, to show that the god no longer held influence over the world. But every year, on Dec 17th, the priests of Saturn would go to the statues where they would solemnly remove the binding from around the god’s ankles. This act symbolized their intention to release the power of the god. Then the priests would step out onto the steps of the temple where they would shout
“Io Saturnalia” (Hail to Saturn)
And thus the festival would begin. Statues and dwellings were festooned with greenery in tribute to the agricultural god, representing his power of renewal. Fires were lit, lamp and candle, to hold off the lurking dark spirits.
People filled the street wearing masks or blacking their faces (probably a hold over from the Babylonians seeking Tammuz in the streets during their 12 day festival) Little masks of the god of intoxication, Bacchus, were hung on trees. The people joined together in feasting and gift giving- (originally, it was customary to go to the groves of the goddess Strenia -the goddess who gives vigour and energy to the weak and the diffident - to gather twigs or branches which would be exchanged for luck). Eventually rather than giving twigs – they began to give ‘lucky fruit’ referred to as Strenae.
Children were given small clay dolls. representing the sacrifices that were once made to Saturn, to assure the fertility of the land. Soon the exchange of gifts began. The wealthy were urged to give gifts of clothing or food to their less fortunate friends. Those who had less gold but might be wealthy of wit were encouraged to write a piece to entertain or enlighten their friends.
Most important was taking the time to spend with your loved ones. It was a celebration of that golden era where each was loved equally by a beneficent father god- and each spread the wealth of that love freely--- from slaves being served meals by their noblemen to a special feast to celebrate the children (Juvenalia) This overturning of social positions grew from the ancient Solstice celebrations of Sacaea and Zagmuk. In each household one person would be chosen to represent Saturn at the festivities and be declared “King of the Revels”. Their duty was to foster mischief and entertainment for those gathered.
(This also flows from the 'mock king' rituals of earlier celebrations and eventually becomes 'King of the Bean” in Northern European tradition)
No wars were fought during Saturnalia. Any wars that the Romans were engaged in were brought to a temporary halt while Saturn ruled the land. Schools were closed. No banking or business was to be conducted. Indeed, the only people who were allowed to work were the cooks who supplied the lavish banquets. All celebrants would don a red peaked cap called a pilleus, which was the symbol of a freed man. During Saturnalia all men wore it to symbolize that all were of equal status.
The seasonal greeting of this time of year was "Sol Invictus" which means
"Hail the Return of the invincible sun"
On this longest night, the lighting of fires out of doors is a reminder of the ancient bonfires which were lit the keep the evil forces of Ahrimin at bay. Winter Solstice night is the last night of the Persian month, Azar. It was believed that the forces of darkness roamed freely until the sun rose in the morning of the month “Dey”, so to that end, part of the celebration was to stay up through the whole night to be certain the morning would come.
In the 13thC, Iranian poet Sa'di said “The true morning will not come until the Yalda Night is gone” in reference to this vigil on the final night of the darkness.
Friends and family gather around a low square table called a Korsi, usually in the home of the eldest of the family. The elder says prayers of thanks for the bounties of the previous year as well as requesting good fortune for all in the next. The slicing of a watermelon represents a symbolic cutting away of any ills that may impede the family so all who are in attendance are given a share. While snacks are passed around, the family sits up well into the night telling the old tales and reading poetry, particularly the poet, Hafiz. It is traditional to serve pomegranate dusted with angelica powder, and many seeds, to symbolize a fruitful coming year.
This holiday grew out of the Babylonian traditions and is celebrated not only in Iran but in some areas of Central Asia such as Afghanistan as well as some Caucasian states such as Armenia (also Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan)
African American- Kwanzaa
Most of our traditions of Solstice derive from old world customs but the African Americans descended from slaves had been cut off from their own ancient traditions.
In 1966- an African American social activist - Dr. Maulana Karenga developed the holiday of Kwanzaa to reclaim this important seasonal threshold for African Americans
Karenga chose the word Kwanzaa - from a Swahili word- kwanza- which means "FIRST FRUITS".
The holiday is celebrated from Dec 26 - Jan 1. Each day a candle is lit for a principal of positive living.
Each day of Kwanzaa, a candle is lit to ignite the principle of life which will be the focus for the day. The candles are held upon an eight pronged candelabra called a kinara- which symbolizes the matrix from which all Africans spring. The colours of Kwanzaa are black: to represent the African people, red: which symbolizes their struggles for freedom and identity and green: to speak for the future and the hope of tomorrow. The black candle is lit first, then each day another kinara candle is lit until all the flames are burning. On the final night of Kwanzaa, families gather together to feast and place items that represent their values upon the woven mat (mkeka) next to the kinara. Corn or some form of crop is placed on the mkeka to represent the bounty of children, who promise continued life for the people.
The Kikombe Cha Umoja (The Unity Cup) is next onto the mkeka. This cup is used to pour out a portion of beverage to honour and recall, to those present, all who came before. Memory of the ancestors is evoked to remind those gathered the lessons that have been learned and handed down. Books on African culture and African artwork are placed on the mkeka as a symbol of their renewed commitment to learn and pass down all they can about African heritage so that their identity and unity will never be threatened again.
Jewish - Hanukkah
Around 200 BCE, Judea came under the rule of the Greco-Syrian King, Antiochus Epiphanes. His predecessor had been lenient with the practice of other religions in his lands but Antiochus actively moved to exterminate Judaism. He disallowed practice of the Jewish religion and started killing any of the Jewish people who would not convert.
The most revered of the Jewish temples was rededicated to a foreign god whose ceremonies included the sacrifice of non kosher animals (pigs) on the altar.
In 168 BCE, Judah the Macabbee led a revolt which defeated the Syrians. Once the fighting had ended, one of the first acts was to enter the temple to re-light the ner tamid.
This lamp, in the Western section of the temple, represented the eternal presence of God in the lives of the people and the community. Ner Tamid lamps are never to be extinguished so the act of relighting this lamp in re-dedication of that temple was a reclamation.
The Talmud reports that most of the lamp oil in the temple was defiled, there was only one small jar pure enough to use. It would require 8 days to properly prepare oil to fuel the Ner Tamid. The tiny jar would only last through one night. They chose to light their meager supply so they could reclaim their temple and give thanks for the return of the holy place to its proper stewards.
The tiny jar of oil burned in the Ner Tamid, faithfully, for 8 days.
The word Hanukkah means 'dedication' and the Jewish people gather to celebrate the miracle of the oil, re-dedicating themselves to the Jewish faith.
Each day the Shamash is used to light the corresponding candles. Prayers are spoken as the candles are lit left to right. God is thanked for the miracles he has wrought for the Jewish people, for his sustaining presence, for life itself. Traditionally, a game is played with a four sided top called a Dreidel. Children are given small tokens, like chocolates. Gifts may be exchanged between adults but this is not a focus of the Hanukkah season. People gather with their families to feast, featuring foods cooked in oil such as latkes and donuts.
Some people eat cheese blintzes and other dairy foods to commemorate a woman called Judith, who saved her village from a Syrian general's army by filling him up on so much cheese he fell asleep. She used his own sword to remove his head.
Koliada was celebrated by ancient Slavic peoples between Dec 25 and Jan 6. A 12 day festival which was presided over by 12 priests, who were probably ancient astronomers as they had the task of predicting the future harvest using water from 12 wells, and 12 sheaves of wheat
On page 183 of their book, “Time of Gods, Time of Men”(People's time) authors S. Ermakov and D. Gavrilov, have this to say about the celebration of Koliada.
“..The entire world is born anew. It receives hope of the future life. This is the true deep meaning of this festival. Koliada is the very day of change. It is an act of creation. Everything that went before this moment, and everything that will occur afterwards, is its subject and depends on it, and is governed by it…”.
The authors go on to speak of the quality of Koliada as a point of 'non- time' when the veils between the realms are thin, allowing the ancestors to enter the world for visitation. Children don costumes and masks at this time, representing those anticipated visitors, and go from house to house carrying lanterns while they sing the songs of Koliada. Homeowners reward them by handing out sweets
Also celebrated in Russia (kolyada), Czechoslovakia, Croatia (koleda), Romania (colindă), Poland (kolęda), Belarus (kalada), Bulgaria, Macedonia, Serbia, Lithuania (Kalėda) and Bosnia (koleda)
Guatemala- The Flying Pole Dance
St Thomas Day- Guatemala- About 90 miles northeast of Guatemala City is a highland city nic-named Chichi. Every year from December 13-21, the people of Chichcastenango celebrate their patron saint Thomas with a spectacular festival.
People flock the streets in elaborate bright costumes which reference the past, such as the stylized conquistadors donned by those performing the annual Dance of the Conquest. The festival is a visual cornucopia of colour and sights, with most of its events held in the town square in front of the Iglesia De Santo Tomas. This simple white church was built in 1545, by the Spanish, on the site of a pre-Columbian temple platform. One visitor to the St Thomas Day celebration reported that fireworks were constant, set off day and night.
The culmination arrives on December 21st when the ancient Mayan tradition of the Polo Voladore or 'The Flying Pole Dance' is performed 90 ft/ 27 m high above the crowds. In pairs, the dancers scale tall wooden poles to platforms, winding rope around them as they ascend. From this dizzying height, the Palo Volador dancers leap into the air. As the rope unravels, the dancer is spun groundward to the admiring gasps and applause of the crowds.
It was once believed that if a Polo Voladore could actually land on his feet, the Sun God would find this pleasing be convinced to hasten his return.
Latvia - Solstice Sauna
In Latvia, ancient practice was to remain awake for all of Winter Solstice night, in anticipation of the sun's victory. Custom involved the practice of an early morning sauna with a focus on recouping all the energy of the past year while preparing the self for the journey of the next. This sauna might be done the evening of the solstice or the early morning but the intention was to face the rising of the new sun with a renewed soul.