They built the fires high. They invited family and friends to come and make noise with song and laughter. Demons
don't like laughter or noise. Back and forth to all the dwellings they would go bringing laughter and gifts.
So began winter festivals. This was a time for the people to bond and form close ties. Some of the mid-winter
festivals are Yule, Christmas, Winter Solstice, Saturnalia, Hanukkah, Boxing Day, New Year's Eve and more recently
Kwanzaa, to name a few.
Babylonian Festival for Marduk
In Mesopotamia, the people of Babylon held a festival for the god Marduk, or Enlil or Marcuk, who they believed
created the world out of chaos. At the darkest time of the year a substitute person was needed who could be held
responsible for the sins that they had committed during the past year. After the substitute or "scapegoat"
was killed, the sun would come back again. There would be a lot of celebrating and visiting. The Babylonians
would feast for 12 days and often wore masks as they brought gifts to many homes.
Roman Saturnalia Festival
The Romans brought in green boughs and lit candles to keep out the dark at the Saturnalia festival. The Saturnalia
was a celebration for Saturn, a god to the Romans. They took the idea from the Greeks. The Greeks had the Kronia
for their god Kronos. Most of the time the Romans were a conservative people, but they made up for it during
the Saturnalia. The Romans knew how to have a great party and Saturnalia was one of the biggest parties with
food, drink and lots of gift giving. They brought into their homes green boughs and lit candles and lamps to
keep out the dark. Gifts given at Saturnalia were thought to be lucky, mostly lucky fruits and lucky cakes were
given. On one day during the Saturnalia a slave would be chosen the Saturnine King. The slave could wear the
master's clothes and eat at the head table.
Another old religion, Mithraism, celebrated the birth of the god Mithras on December 25th. Other gods born
in December were Dionysus, Baal and Frey.
The mid-winter celebration seems to have started in the Mediterranean lands and then moved North. Pleasing the
gods so the sun would return was even more important in the North, where there was less sunlight to begin with.
The mid-winter New Year festival in the North has very big fires and of course feasting. The god of fertility
was Frey whose animal symbol was the Boar. Therefore a Boar was often the meat of the feast, with the head given
to the god. Boughs of bay, holly, yew, juniper, spruce and bunches of ivy were hung around the dwelling as a protection
There was a Christian who became archbishop in an Asia Minor town called Myra. He came from a wealthy family
and liked to help deserving people who had less. He would often leave gifts or money for those in need. It is
believed he died in 326AD on December 6th. He was later made a saint - Saint Nicholas.
Some medieval Christians celebrated "Adam and Eve" day on December 24th. A tree representing the Tree
of Life would be hung with apples.
In Germany the Yuletide log would be lit to keep the dark at bay. The houses would be swept with pine branches
to sweep out the bad luck to make room for the good luck.
In Britain, where you will find Yule logs burning at Christmas today, the Druids gave their contribution of
mistletoe to the mid-winter festival. Mistletoe was sacred to the Druids, as were the great oaks where it grew.
The oaks were the dwellings of spirits. Britain was where there were often mid-winter parties with masqueraders
and a Lord of Misrule sometimes called the Lord of the Fools. The feast would sometimes begin with a Boar's head
with an apple in his mouth.
Most people know the Magi or Wise Men brought gifts to Jesus on Epiphany, January 6th, twelve days after Christmas
on December 25th in the forms of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Frankincense is still burned in churches to this
day. Not everyone knows about February 2nd, Candlemas Day (Festival of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin
Mary), Imbolc (the day the Goddess returns) or in America Groundhog Day (if the groundhog sees his shadow we will
have six more weeks of winter). Long ago it was believed that the demons could hide in dark corners of a house.
The greens were left in place until this date when they were taken out, but again lots of candles or lamps were
lit to make sure every nook was checked for demons.
Hannukkah and Christmas
Today Christmas and Hanukkah are widely celebrated in the world. New Year's
Eve is a big celebration in most of the world, often with lots of loud fireworks. If we look back at mid-winter
celebrations we find some of the old ways being used today. From Babylon we have an echo of twelve days of Christmas.
The Babylonians wore masks like many New Year Eve partygoers.
It seems gift giving came down thru the centuries. Giving gifts is fun. It makes people happy to give and to
receive. The pines, hollies and ivies that were a symbol of good luck, good health and long life are still with
us in the form of boughs and the Christmas tree. I like to think the Christmas tree did come from the Tree of
Life, but of course no one really knows. There are always more candles for sale at Christmas than at any other
time of the year. Santa Claus, the Yule log, a big dinner with family and friends, all these things are echoes
of our past.
Whatever celebration you practice around mid-winter, it should be a joyous celebration, with much laughter and
It is a time to get rid of and sweep out the demons of sadness, greed, loneliness and dislike. It should be a
celebration with love and laughter. Feasting and gift giving are most appropriate at mid-winter. Sharing, forgiving
and love are a good way to start a New Year. So bring in the greens, light the fire and candles. Roast the pork,
bake a special cake and share them with loved ones.
Happy New Year!
Other information you might enjoy: