The year is dying, and it’s nearly time for a good old pagan knees up. Occurring around the 21st or 22nd of December, the winter solstice has been celebrated for a jolly long time, possibly even as far back as the beginning of the neoloithic age (around 8000 BC).
In days of yore, we were all hunter gatherers and so our relationship with the seasons and the benevolence of the sun was critical.
Everyone was a forager, and everyone grew their own. You can see why meat is perhaps central to a festive winter dish, as there is so little available in the way of fruit or vegetables in northern climates that it would have been difficult to survive without making animal sacrifices*.
As a consequence, ancient people such as the Norsemen worshipped the sun as a symbol of fecundity and abundance. So they lit bonfires at the solstice to represent and celebrate it at the darkest time of year, and to usher in the incremental return of daylight. The festival was known as Yule.
‘At Midwinter, or Solstice, the Vikings honored their Asa Gods with religious rituals and feasting. They sacrificed a wild boar to Frey, the God of fertility and farming, to assure a good growing season in the coming year. The meat was then cooked and eaten at the feast’. (Viking Yule)
They also got uproariously drunk on bad mead and fornicated wildly in their icy caves to alleviate the boredom and monotony of the winter darkness. (Actually the bit about drunkenness and fornication is conjecture, but I’ll bet they did).
There is a similar festival to this in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire, a whole week before bonfire night, as the sun leaves the valley around Hallowe’en and doesn’t return until 1 April. It’s a little known fact that the Calder valley is plunged into Norwegian darkness until April Fool’s day.
The etymological origin of the word ‘solstice’ can literally be interpreted as ‘sun stands still’. On our winter and summer solstices, the sun appears to stop traversing the sky, changing position only very subtly. Contrary to how it appears on Earth, the sun’s changing position during the year is governed by the rotation of the Earth on its tilted axis as it circles the sun.
Another top-drawer midwinter diversion was the Roman festival of Saturnalia, which was celebrated around the solstice and sounds like a blast, with plenty of revelling, cross-dressing and role-reversal:
‘The biggest part of Saturnalia was attitude more than decoration. Feasting, drunkenness, merrymaking, hopefully the conception of more children (or at least enjoying those activities which led to conception!), pranks, gift giving, role reversals. . .’ (Nova Roma)
All the ingredients for a banging party, then. The Romans had it sussed. (Well, apart from the greed, conspicuous over consumption and egomaniacal commercial powermongering maybe). Oh, hang on, that sounds a bit familiar. . .
Track of the Week
Book of the Week
‘Winter Solstice’ by Rosamund Pilcher (Probably best not to bother with actually reading this one – it’s dreadful).
Someone did write quite a funny review, which will probably provide you with more entertainment than the book itself: ‘The author is not very good at giving people different voices. They all say “shall” and “shan’t” have you EVER heard shan’t used out loud? Maybe in England or Scotland they are used. America? Never.’
Just for posterity, no, we don’t use these terms, unless it’s with significant ironic inflexion. Having said that, I may have heard my 91 year old grandmother use them once or twice.
Plant of the week
While I’m on the subject of dark art overlords, I must apologise to Nigella. I’m not advocating Saatchi, but he has collected some very interesting art.
Other Winter Festivals
Hannukah, Jewish festival of light, Peruvian Inti Raymi or festival of the sun, Matariki, a Maori festival and Kwanzaa, an African American and Pan-African celebration. There is also a little known Christian festival (beginning with c)?
*Sacrifice is probably not the best word to use here. Ritual slaughter would probably be more accurate.
** Due to the complete lack of hope and optimism in the Chapman’s work, I might pick a different piece if I were to write this article again. Yule and Solstice are all about celebrating longer, lighter days as well as embracing the darkness.