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Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Winter Solstice

There is a reason that ancient celebrations clustered around December 21 – the shortest day of the year. Early civilizations understood that the worst of winter was behind them and anticipated the days of longer sunlight to come.

The Norse celebrated Yule from December 21 until the end of January. Fathers and sons brought home large logs to burn to celebrate the sun’s return. There would be feasting until the logs burned out, sometimes as many as 12 days later.
They believed that each spark from the log represented a new pig or calf that would be born during the next year. The Germans honored the god Odin during their mid-winter holiday. They feared him because he supposedly made flights at night deciding who would prosper or die. Many stayed indoors to avoid his judgment.

In Rome, Saturnalia was celebrated near the winter solstice. It honored the god of agriculture and began the week before the solstice and continued for a month. Food and drink were plentiful; slaves became masters and peasants ran the city.

By the Middle Ages, Christianity had replaced the pagan religions.
On Christmas, people went to church, then celebrated in a carnival fashion similar to Mardi Gras. The poor went to the houses of the rich and demanded their best food and drink. If owners failed to comply, they were liable to suffer some mischief. (-- "An Ancient Holiday," The History Channel)

Even the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah has ties to the solstice. After the king of Syria conquered Judea in the 2nd century, he stole the menorah and rededicated the temple to a pagan god during the solstice. Judah the Maccabee led a band of rebels that retook Jerusalem. They restored the temple and lit the flame of the menorah. (

The image of Saturnus by Polidoro Caldara da Caravaggio (16th century) is in the public domain.

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