The middle of winter
has long been a time of celebration around the world.
Centuries before the arrival of the man called Jesus, early
Europeans celebrated light and birth in the darkest days of
winter. Many peoples rejoiced during the winter solstice,
when the worst of the winter was behind them and they could
look forward to longer days and extended hours of sunlight.
In Scandinavia, the Norse celebrated Yule from December 21,
the winter solstice, through January. In recognition of the
return of the sun, fathers and sons would bring home large
logs, which they would set on fire. The people would feast
until the log burned out, which could take as many as 12
days. The Norse believed that each spark from the fire
represented a new pig or calf that would be born during the
The end of December
was a perfect time for celebration in most areas of Europe.
At that time of year, most cattle were slaughtered so they
would not have to be fed during the winter. For many, it was
the only time of year when they had a supply of fresh meat.
In addition, most wine and beer made during the year was
finally fermented and ready for drinking.
In Germany, people
honored the pagan god Oden during the mid-winter holiday.
Germans were terrified of Oden, as they believed he made
nocturnal flights through the sky to observe his people, and
then decide who would prosper or perish. Because of his
presence, many people chose to stay inside.
Saturnalia - In Rome,
where winters were not as harsh as those in the far north,
Saturnalia—a holiday in honor of Saturn, the god of
agriculture—was celebrated. Beginning in the week leading up
to the winter solstice and continuing for a full month,
Saturnalia was a hedonistic time, when food and drink were
plentiful and the normal Roman social order was turned
upside down. For a month, slaves would become masters.
Peasants were in command of the city. Business and schools
were closed so that everyone could join in the fun.
Also around the time of the winter solstice,
Romans observed Juvenalia, a feast honoring the children of
Rome. In addition, members of the upper classes often
celebrated the birthday of Mithra, the god of the
unconquerable sun, on December 25. It was believed that
Mithra, an infant god, was born of a rock. For some Romans,
Mithra’s birthday was the most sacred day of the year. In
the early years of Christianity, Easter was the main
holiday; the birth of Jesus was not celebrated.