It’s the shortest day of the year – the winter solstice. A phenomenon noted by cultures all over the world. Many of these cultures mark this time of the year with a holiday or celebration. Examples of some of these celebrations include:
Germanic peoples in Northern Europe celebrated Yule. It is today celebrated by Pagans. During this holiday, observants would bring animals for sacrifices to a central building. The blood of the animals was smeared on idols and the men present. The meat would be cooked for their feast. Before the feast, the chieftain would bless the meat. Toasts of ale would be made to Odin, the chief Norse god, for victory and power to their leader. They would toast for good harvests and peace, and then toast the king himself. Other toasts would be made towards departed family and friends. It is likely the tradition of the Yule Log in Europe stems from this holiday. A Yule Log is a specially selected piece of wood that will burn upon the hearth in the home. This holiday was later Christianized and would be combined with Christmas.
Many Christians celebrate St. Thomas’s day around the winter solstice. However, Guatemala’s indigenous Maya people have added elements of their own folk religion. During this time, they honor K’inich Ajaw, the sun god. One notable celebration is the polo voladore – the flying pole dance. Three men climb to the top of a 50-foot pole. One man plays instruments while the other two wind ropes around one of their feet. The two men will jump from the pole. If the men land on their feet, it is a signal that the sun god is pleased and the days will become longer. It is somewhat reminiscent of Groundhog Day in the U.S.
The Zuni people are a Native American people located in the U.S. Southwest. The winter solstice festival typically follows the harvest as a gesture of thankfulness to the gods. This time is also used to invoke the gods’ blessings on newly built homes. It is celebrated with ceremonies, feasts, and dances around the beginning of December. Non-natives are no longer allowed to view or participate in this holiday.
CHINA AND OTHER EAST ASIAN COUNTRIES
Those familiar with Chinese thought would understand the idea of yin and yang. Moving towards the winter solstice is a marker of yang (negative) energy, as we lose daylight and the days grow darker. The winter solstice is celebrated as a change towards yin energy. The longer days and the more daylight are a signal of positive energy. China and parts of East Asia, including Taiwan, Korea, and Japan, celebrate the winter solstice as a time for family to come together. To symbolize their reunion, families eat glutinous rice balls ("tangyuan") and drink rice wine.
BRUMALIA AND SATURNALIA
In Ancient Rome, people worshipped a pantheon of gods based on Greek mythology. This winter festival was a celebration that took place around the winter solstice honoring a number of Roman Gods: Saturn (the Titan of capitol, wealth, and agriculture), Ceres (the goddess of agriculture, fertility, and motherhood), and Bacchus (god of wine, fertility, theatre, and religious ecstasy). This festival, which would end with the Saturnalia festival, was important to the farming season. During this time, farmers would sacrifice pigs and goats to the gods to ensure a good harvest in the following year.
Saturnalia more closely resembles Christmas, though with considerably more animal sacrifices. Saturnalia was celebrated with feasts and gift-giving. The gift-giving might involve trading poems, such as our Christmas cards. Gifts were usually toys for children, and items exchanged between friends, family, and co-workers. Gag gifts were even given! Observants of Saturnalia would party continuously, drinking and gambling. So, perhaps it is more like Christmas in Las Vegas.