Yule, Saturnalia, or just the Winter Solstice
It’s this time of the year again. The winter solstice marks the longest night and shortest day. It is the official start of the winter season and though the sun begins to come back to our days, the temperatures will get lower yet, because the real harsh cold weather is still to come. Both Yule and Saturnalia are similar to Christmas, and as you’ll see, they have influenced it a lot in different parts of the world.
Why is the winter solstice important to people? I think it’s because of nature and because of what it says about nature. Darkness is at its deepest. It seems the world will not come back to the sun, but just then, things turn and days start to get longer. It is a time for relaxation, enjoying the fruits of your work during the active seasons, giving gratitude to nature for her richness and celebrating the turn of seasons. The turn of seasons is what breathing and pulse are to the human life. All life consists of cycles. After darkness comes sunshine, after cold comes warmth. Nature, like life, will not stay in the same position forever. Evergreen trees are a natural choice for most of the rituals during Yule. They reflect the permanent character of life – even though most greenery is lost, it never goes away entirely. Besides that, the evergreen pines and firs make for a particularly cheerful view amidst the otherwise barren landscape.
If we turn to Saturnalia, we’ll see a slightly different picture. After all, ancient Rome didn’t know winter at its harshest. We can’t really speak of desolate darkness or cold, or even barrenness of the land. During these festivities, dedicated to Saturn – the god of agriculture, the highlight is on celebrating the fruits of the land, enjoying the results of the people’s work in the fields and the gratitude of the population for a good year without hunger and poverty. During the Saturnalia, which lasted for a week, the lower in status became the most honoured. Sometimes slaves would sit at the head of the table, while their masters served them. That time was by far the noisiest festival of the whole year.
Much like during the modern X-mas holidays, schools and businesses in ancient Rome would close inviting all the population to participate in the celebrations.
In all three winter-solstice-related traditions, a focus is put on giving: people would give small presents to their friends and family as well as complete strangers. The suffering of weaker members of the community is usually sought to be relieved by donations, charity or giving them a break as is the case of slaves in Rome.
When I hear strong opinions about the nature and origin of Christmas, I wonder if it is really wise to try and separate holidays and festive traditions between the various beliefs, when we know that people have been living together over all these centuries.
No matter which holiday you honour, do it according to your beliefs, eat and drink enjoying the work of your hands and hearts!