‘Tis the Season: A Flurry of Winter Festivals and Traditions – Stave 1 (Yule, Saturnalia and the Origins of Christmas)

‘Tis the Season: A Flurry of Winter Festivals and Traditions – Stave 1 (Yule, Saturnalia and the Origins of Christmas)

Hello my fellow students and readers! With the year 2014 slowly coming to a close and the holiday season finally here, there is so much to think about, even here at Areteem Institute!  It’s a time to reflect on the events of this past year as well as making merry with family and friends as we enjoy a myriad of holidays that come at this time of year. Then there’s some of you who may ask why some of our holidays have come to be? I mean really, what is the history behind celebrating one of the biggest holidays of the year like Christmas?

We know Christmas is both a religious holiday commemorating the birth of Jesus Christ as well as a secular phenomenon full of lights, greenery, wintry dreams and joy in the air. But what is the misty past behind Christmas? And what of the ancient holidays that have influenced this cultural phenomenon?

So with this in mind, and some help form the Ghost of Christmas Past and St. Nicholas, I your Whisperer present to you a sleigh ride full of  Christmas history (condensed)!

To be brief, before Jesus was even born,  many people around the world celebrated the return of the sun in the midst of darkest winter which we now refer to as the Winter Solstice (solstice being Latin for “sun standing still” with its counterpart being the Summer Solstice in June). This celestial event occurs every year between December 20th-22nd. Many ancient cultures from the Chinese, the Egyptians, the Celts, the Norse and Germanic peoples and more had their own unique festivals to welcome the sun back in the hopes of summer light and warmth returning to their lands. (Festivals like Christmas and Hanukkah can be interpreted as contemporary examples although each celebrates a different historic event in ancient Israel- the former the birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem and the latter the lamp oil lasting for eight days in the Temple in Jerusalem).

Many historians, scholars and folklorists agree that a few ancient celebrations highly contributed to the customs and superstitions that are part of our modern-day Christmas festival  revolving around the time of the Winter Solstice.

Walhall by Emil Doepler

To start off, have you ever wondered what the words “Yule” or “Yuletide” mean as they float through the lyrics of Deck the Halls? Yule, or Mid-Winter, in fact was a Winter Solstice festival celebrated by many races in northern Europe, in particular the  ancient Germanic and Norse people. This festival included much of the imagery we associate with Halloween as we know it today, as it was believed that any number of spirits, witches and gods were abroad during this time that could do good or ill well to mere mortals. These spirits were in essence representations of winter as well as the surrounding natural landscape they lived in, often cold, barren and unforgiving during the harsh winter months. People who lived such agrarian lifestyles were fearful for their lives for no one knew who would survive until the spring came. In an effort to both placate and honor these beings, grand feasts and sacrifices were enacted so as to encourage the sun to rise again, bring about good health among the people and to ensure a good harvest in the coming year.

Yule also contained many of the elements we see today such as the yule log (originally a large log cut down and brought into public halls to burn throughout the festival, similar to the tradition of bringing in the Christmas tree into our homes. Today it is popular as a holiday dessert called a “Buche de Noel” from the French).

The Yule festival was supposed to have lasted anywhere from two months from November to January, or more specifically for twelve days and is the origin of the so-called “Twelve Days of Christmas”. Over time when Christianity came to Scandinavian and other Germanic regions the customs of Yule became synthesized with the customs of Christmas and eventually “Yule” and “Christmas” became synonymous with each other. Even today people who live in  Scandinavian countries such as Sweden will wish each other “God Yul” as their way of saying “Merry Christmas”. In addition, modern Neo-pagan religions celebrate their own versions of Yule around the Winter Solstice on December 21st with reconstructed rituals that are believed to be close to how our ancestors celebrated this holiday long ago.


In the Mediterranean region, ancient Romans marked their own celebration of midwinter with a raucous time known as Saturnalia, in honor of the deity Saturn (the Roman equivalent of the Greek Kronos) who was the father of agriculture and culture. The Roman people celebrated for a week on their Julian calendar around our modern December 17th-23rd and during this time people were off from work, students did not attend any educational institution and role reversals were dominant with masters catering to their slaves for instance. These festivities later were turned into the Advent season that leads up to Christmas Day.

During Saturnalia, greenery was adorned in homesteads to remind everyone of their agricultural roots. It is the Romans and also the ancient Germanic, Norse (these latter two races celebrating Yule) and Celtic peoples we have to thank for introducing the holly, ivy and mistletoe decorations to Christmas traditions as all were sacred to these various people, either associated with gods or had magical properties of their own, and eventually were adopted by early Christians in their own unique celebration of Christ’s birth. (Holly and Ivy were considered male and female symbols, respectively, with the Holly taking on the image of Jesus’ “crown of thorns”. Mistletoe is in fact a fertility symbol relating to a Norse myth that eventually became a symbol for love as anyone standing under its branches was allowed one kiss after plucking one of its white berries).

Roman artifact with Sol Invictus (top middle with sun crown) and Mithra (to his right) atop a bull

Roman artifact with Sol Invictus (top middle with sun crown) and Mithra (to his right) atop a bull

Around the time of Saturnalia, Roman culture allowed for people to pick and choose religions as they pleased beyond the state-sanctioned Roman pantheon that derived from the older Greek pantheon. Among many of the Roman deities was Sol Invictus (“the Unconquerable Son”), mainly worshiped by the male Roman elite. His birthday was celebrated on December 25th, supposedly the date of the Roman Winter Solstice and he was often confused with Mithra, a god of Persian origins, whose religions, the Mithraic Mysteries, were practiced by an initiated group of worshipers.

Medieval Woodcut depicting the Visitation and the Nativity

Medieval Woodcut depicting the Visitation and the Nativity

As the early Christians spread throughout Europe, they realized that with so many different religions and practices they were outnumbered when it came to introducing people to their new belief system. Early Christians also were concerned with the fact that there was no exact date for Christ’s birth other than accounts written in the Gospels of the New Testament. When Emperor Constantine took up the cross in the 300s CE, he became the first Roman Emperor to adopt Christianity as the established religion. Under his reign, he helped to establish a more official date for the birth of Jesus Christ.  So as a direct act of “suppressing” older pagan beliefs,  Christ’s birth was proclaimed to be on December 25th overlapping the idea of the birth of the “sun” with the “Son of God” and the date of Christmas, known then as the Feast of the Nativity was established. The actual name of  “Christmas” came much later in medieval England from Old English literally meaning “Christ’s Mass”.

Depiction of a Medieval Christmas banquet

With the Medieval Period came many festivities establishing in essence the first Christmas holiday season (the twelve days of Christmas from December 25th to January 6th) as people attended lavish banquets and celebrations in the halls of manor homes and castles, landlords and their tenants paid their end of the year dues and everyone was very merry! This time in history also brought about the musical tradition of  Christmas that evolved from Latin hymns chanted by the clergy in churches into songs sung in the vernacular by lay people. St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals who established his Order of Franciscan monks, is credited for inventing Christmas “carols”. (The word “carol” originally comes from the French to mean a song that was accompanied by dancing; this could be why so many are quite spirited today!). He is further credited to creating a live Nativity scene in a church one Christmas Eve in 1223, starting the practice of the “crèche” with the baby Jesus and the Holy Family now adorned in homes and churches around the world today. This also helped to start the tradition of Nativity plays that have been performed since the medieval period up to the present-day.

Beyond the solemn religious rites, the Christmas season acquired a carnivalesque atmosphere that continued through the later medieval period and into parts of the early modern period (1400s and 1500s). This raucous celebration then came to a halt under the Protestant Reformation that condemned Christmas as either too Catholic of a holiday or too pagan of a holiday because of its ancient roots. In England from 1642-1660, the Puritans in power abolished Christmas completely. This influence was also strongly felt among the Pilgrims and Puritans living in North America around this time as they could have been fined if they were caught celebrating the Christmas holiday! With the eventual Restoration of King Charles II to the English throne in 1660, Christmas became a recognized holiday once more  (although Scotland took until 1958 to adopt Christmas as a national public holiday). Soon the Christmas holiday was celebrated again and it did not take too long for it to come to the New World with a bevy of traditions still to be invented…

Next time for Part 2: Learn about some colonial American traditions,  how Christmas was “created” in the 19th century and how it has thrived in the 20th and 21st centuries!


Some books to read:

-“Christmas Past”  by Barbara Kissinger

-“The Winter Solstice: The Sacred Traditions of Christmas” by John Matthews

-“Yule: A Celebration of Light and Warmth” by Dorothy Morrison

-“The Old Magic of Christmas: Yuletide Traditions for the Darkest Days of the  Year” by Linda Raedisch

-“Pagan Christmas: The Plants, Spirits and Rituals at the Origins of Yuletide” by Christian Ratsch


Some Internet Websites to Check Out:










Come check at our programs here at Areteem Institute at www.areteem.org!

 [expand title=”Click here to subscribe to our e-newsletter for more freebies!” tag=”div” alt=”Falcon Girl”]

Email *