Good news and tidings: The worst of the winter is behind us. Since the 21st of December, the days have been getting shorter. Here in the Midwest, there’s a bright, dazzling, cold sun and a layer of ice and snow dusting the ground. Christmas lights are glowing. In my house, jazzy piano Christmas music wafts through the air and mingles with the scent of cinnamon-sugar and burning ember.
This is a season long since celebrated, before the birth of Christianity: Traditionally, Christ wasn’t really in Christmas. Instead, pagans celebrated the winter solstice.
In Scandinavia, they celebrated the lingering sunlight in a holiday called Yule from December 21 through January by lighting gargantuan bonfires and feasting until they burnt out. The alcohol they had been fermenting all year was at last ready to drink.
In ancient Rome, pagans celebrated Saturnalia, which honored Saturn, the God of Agriculture, by turning their social order upside down. Slaves became masters, peasants ruled all, and for a month they lived freely, defying oppression, defying rules, and empowering themselves.
And before Santa Claus ever set foot in a sleigh, it was the German God Oden that soared through the night sky, observing his peoples. If he saw them, they would either prosper or perish.
People stayed inside.
It wasn’t until the sixth century that Christmas found its way to England, even though theologians theorize that this religious figure was born in the springtime. Most likely, Christians celebrated Christmas to turn the Romans’ attention away from Saturnalia and attract converts. In the end, they got a mixture of pagan solstice traditions intertwined with Christian ones. The Christmas trees in homes, businesses, and churches everywhere are a custom of the Vikings. Evergreens honor Balder, the Sun God. An act of Heathens is actually widely accepted by today’s Christmas culture.
Have a very merry winter solstice and a happy pagan-ish Christmas. Cheers to whatever holiday you’re celebrating this wintery season, from Hanukkah to Kwanzaa to Saturnalia. Season’s greetings or whatever.