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Midwinter Sun 2004
Midwinter Sun
Winter Solstice 2004
Photo: S J Cassandra Wall

Christmas

The Christmas feast which we celebrate today has its roots in the very ancient Roman festival of “Saturnalia”. The origins of the Roman festival are prehistoric, and even Roman historians were vexed with the question of the true origins and meaning of this Winter Solstice (shortest day) feast. Roman historians identified Saturn with the Greek titan Kronos, the ruthless, relentless god of time. The midwinter Saturnalia could well have been a survival of a very ancient New Year celebration. This is supported by the fact that ordinary customs were inverted for the Saturnalia: Slaves went free for the day, and a “Lord of Misrule” was appointed to cause chaos for the day. These echo the New Year celebrations of ancient Babylon.

However, the Saturnalia also formed the mid-way point between 2 agricultural festivals, one celebrating the god of the stored harvest (Consus) two days earlier, and the other the goddess of plenty (Ops) two days later. Thus, many modern scholars have identified Saturn as an ancient god of either sowing or harvest. When the Romans invaded Britain, the Celtic tribes they conquered had no festival at this time of year. Being fond of feasting and drunkenness in general, the Celts enthusiastically embraced this particular Roman festival, and continued celebrating it even after the Romans had left. When the Angles and Saxons arrived, the Saturnalia were combined with the Saxon mid-winter festival of Yule. Saxon customs at yuletide included decorating homes with greenery, and eating pork and ham.
As England was Christianised, the Saturnalia/Yule festival was adapted to the Christian Christmas. This tradition was brought by the Roman Church, so the Saturnalian aspects of the festival were already present in the Christian version. Many modern customs were Teutonic traditions which were imported from mainland Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. Such imported customs include Father Christmas (and his association with St. Nicholas), the hanging of stockings by the chimney, and the decoration of Christmas trees. Since Teutonic culture was closely associated with Saxon culture, this raises the question of whether these customs were briefly part of Saxon Yule before being suppressed by the Church. However, there is only tenuous historical and archaeological evidence for this.
From here on we have added some of our own traditions, including compulsive watching of television, and the Queen’s speech! However, the essentials of the Roman Saturnalia - Feasting, drunkenness and the exchange of presents - have survived to the present day.

Yuletide Greenery 2001

“Yuletide greenery” in a domestic setting 2001, incorporating a rising sun and hooded spirit figures (‘genii cucullati’) often found on Celtic altar engravings
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