First of all, as it should be, a little history. I have talked a lot here about the question of the summer solstice on June 21. But it’s now appropriate, at this time of the year, to take a little interest in its winter equivalent, December 21. Wait, this is an article on Christmas, you’ll tell me, it’s December 25, isn’t it? Not at all on the 21st, what’s this story? But. Christmas is a Christian holiday, certainly, taking place on December 25th. But it’s far from always being that simple.
You may have heard, one day or another, the words of Saturnalia? The feast of Mithras? Of Yule? Well it so happens that it’s these feasts first, which occupied our ancestors during the winter solstice.
If you look at Mithra, it’s not surprising that his feast is celebrated on Christmas Day, because the god Mithra was born on December 25th (doesn’t that remind you of anyone?). This god, whose origin probably dates back more than 4000 years, is celebrated since then around the winter solstice, for his birthday, as it should be. Of Indo-persian origin, Mithra is the sun god. It’s he who protects humans, who warms them and allows them to feed themselves by making their plants grow. Mithra is a god who gives, and that is why, on his birthday, December 25th, he’s honored with gifts and offerings. December 21, the winter solstice, is the shortest day of the year, the night is so long that it seems it will never end. Yet, each year on December 25, Mithra is reborn and the days grow longer again, unfolding the greatest gift Mithra has to offer to humans. Further north, among the Celts (as in many other polytheistic religions, by the way), we find this idea of a solar god, who dies on the winter solstice, but whose day also represents rebirth (or birthday) and thus victory, because he is reborn again and again, invariably.
As for the Saturnalia, you will easily understand that it was a Roman custom. In Antiquity, this feast lasted one week around our present Christmas. During this period, in Roman culture, which was very hierarchical, it was considered that there was no social difference between individuals and all religions were invited to these celebrations, without any problem. Meals were shared, gifts were given to loved ones and sometimes to those who passed by the house. Children were given toys or small sort of dolls, guests were given holly, mistletoe or ivy, which was also used to decorate the house. During this week, slaves were considered free, and in some houses, the master even served the slave for a change. All institutions were closed, and all death sentences were even suspended. Everyone was at home, busy making small personalized gifts that they could then offer (saturnalia and sigillaricia). Most of the meals during this period are offered free of any kind of charge.
Druids and shamans from all over the world, during the winter solstice (among the peoples located in the other hemisphere however, the dates are reversed), we celebrate during the week of the shortest day of the year, the rebirth of the sun. Yule, which actually means “solstice” in Old Norse, is the day when Heimdall, who lives at the North Pole, comes down to visit children, rewarding those who have done well by leaving them gifts and punishing those who have not been good with ashes. For the Vikings, Yule is a feast of light, where humans, as well as gods, take the opportunity to gather with friends and family, enjoy loved ones, share good food, songs, hand-made gifts, and tell stories.
So much for the history. Today, it’s more often remembered in the Western world that Christmas is a Christian holiday, celebrating Jesus of Nazareth, who was also born on December 25th. However, December is also the month of the day of St. Nicholas (December 6). The legend of this saint tells that he is said to have succeeded in resurrecting three little children who had been cut up by a horrible butcher. This is how he quickly became the protector of children, especially the little ones. In the Middle Ages, as early as 1087, in Northern and Eastern European countries, it gradually became customary for a man to disguise himself as Saint Nicholas (as he was pictured, i.e. with a large beard, a bishop’s crook, a mitre and a large hooded garment) and to pass through houses to offer gifts to well-behaved children (it was not until the 16th century that Mr Bogeyman made his appearance). Little by little, the legends became intertwined, giving birth to Santa Claus, a character strangely resembling St. Nicholas, who gives presents to children, but on the day of Jesus’ birth now, December 25th.
In spite of this, we should not forget that another great festival takes place around the winter solstice, which is Hanukkah. For the Jews it’s a very great moment of rejoicing, during 8 days, the feast of lights. And it’s indeed still about lights that inexplicably last longer than one would expect (like the sun that comes back every year). It’s an opportunity to make large and long hearty meals, but also to study and cultivate oneself around stories (Hanukkah comes from the root of the Hebrew word ‘hanèkh, which means “to educate”). And of course we also give each other gifts! Contrary to popular belief, it is not the acculturation of the Jews that led them to adopt the habit of giving gifts to each other, as their great wise of the past already encouraged this custom (Maimonides, etc.).
The winter solstice is therefore a moment closely related to giving and receiving gifts. (Luckily, Santa Claus today does not only care for children!) This custom raises a multitude of questions, among which is that of the gratuity and/or the value of what we offer, of the importance given to “being together” vs. the material accumulation of goods, or even that of knowing, obviously, more profoundly, where come from the fact that we have been giving each other gifts around the winter solstice for thousands of years?
In any case, I wish you all a wonderful winter solstice and a wonderful holiday season, hoping that it will be possible for you to see your loved ones despite the current circumstances and no matter if this period has more meaning for you as Yule or Christmas, or whether it’s Saint Nicholas or Mithra who brings you your gifts.
Thank you & see you soon!