Even though there was no Christmas celebration before the 4th century CE, there were many Pagan festivals in the northern hemisphere centred on the winter solstice since remote antiquity. Winter Solstice falls on 21 December when night is longest and day is shortest in the northern hemisphere with a 24 hour long night in the Arctic region. Due to approximations in time calculation, it falls on 22 December once in a few years. Since then the days become longer. For the ancients the winter solstice was not just any other day. Having been more connected with the nature, they hadn’t gotten used to the scenery around them like us. Therefore, they would have felt that in every phenomenon in nature there was more than what just meets the eye. With wonder and awe they would have watched the seasonal changes and other celestial and terrestrial phenomena. Realising their fortunes are intimately linked with changes in the nature, they saw the hands of their gods (Providence) behind these changes because of which many beliefs and mythologies and hence many festivals also came into being. The days becoming longer and longer was interpreted as the rebirth or resurrection or rejuvenation of the Sun God and the ‘birthdays’ of many solar deities from Asia Minor, Middle East and Europe such as Attis, Frey, Thor, Dionysus, Osiris, Adonis, Mithra, Tammuz, Cernunnos and so forth were being celebrated around the winter Solstice. These festivals highlighted the ebb and flow of Life on the Earth: fallow time (during the shortening of days), the ‘Mother Earth’ beginning to awaken (from the winter solstice onwards), the sowing of seed, the glory of flowers, flourishing abundance, early harvest and late harvest. Please remember that severe winter many times used to bring starvation and other hardships. The people would really long for brighter and warmer days. Hence winter solstice kindled hope- hope of a good harvest and spring time. Thus it was an occasion for merriments also, besides prayers and rituals. Singing, dancing visiting friends and relatives and exchanging gifts were the marks of the season exactly as in the modern Christmas celebration.
It will be really interesting to know something about the different winter solstice festivals of different regions prevalent in the fourth century.
Zagmuk was ancient Winter Solstice festival of Mesopotamia. The shortening of day time during winter was understood buy the Mesopotamians as the attempt of monsters of darkness and chaos to destroy light and order. Their Chief God Marduk would fight against these demons and defeat them. Since the days become longer after the winter solstice, it was considered to be the day on which Marduk defeated the monsters and re-established order in the world. But the demons would return every winter and Marduk would have to defeat them again. Zagmuk festival was held by the Ancient Mesopotamians in order to assist Marduk during his struggle. The festivities would last for twelve days. During this festival the king would step down from the throne in order to free himself to battle chaos in Marduk’s name. He would return to the Temple of Marduk and swear his faithfulness to the God. After the battle is successfully completed (once the celebrations were over) the king would be reinstated to the throne and the world would be safe from chaos and darkness for another year.
Winter solstice being the longest night of the year and the beginning of the lengthening of days, Shabe Yaldā or Shabe Chelle is an Iranian festival celebrating the victory of light and goodness over darkness and evil. Shabe yalda means ‘birthday eve.’ According to Persian mythology, Mithra was born at dawn on the 22nd of December to a virgin mother. He symbolizes light, truth, goodness, strength, and friendship. Herodotus, an ancient Greek historian reports that this was the most important holiday of the year for contemporary Persians. In modern times Persians celebrate Yalda by staying up late or all night, a practice known as Shab Chera meaning ‘night gazing’. Fruits and nuts are eaten, especially pomegranates and watermelons, whose red colour invokes the crimson hues of dawn and symbolise Mithra. A mid-winter feast to honour fire and to “defeat the forces of darkness, frost and cold Sadé or Sada is an ancient Iranian tradition celebrated 50 days before Nowruz-the Zoroastrian New Year day. Sadeh in Persian means “hundred” and refers to one hundred days and nights left to the beginning of the New Year celebrated at the first day of spring on March 21 each year. Sadeh is a midwinter festival that was celebrated with grandeur and magnificence in ancient Iran. It was a festivity to honour fire and to defeat the forces of darkness, frost, and cold. The festival is believed to be 3700years old.
Dōngzhì Festival or Winter Solstice Festival is one of the most important festivals celebrated by the Chinese and other East Asians on or around December 22 (according to East Asia time). The origins of this festival go back to at least three millennia, to the yin and yang philosophy of balance and harmony in the universe. Traditionally, the Dongzhi Festival is also a family get together time. Tangyuan (balls of glutinous rice), which symbolise reunion, are made of glutinous rice flour and sometimes brightly coloured. Each family member receives at least one large tangyuan in addition to several small ones. The flour balls may be plain or stuffed. They are cooked in a sweet soup or savoury broth with both the ball and the soup/broth served in one bowl. It is also often served with a mildly alcoholic unfiltered rice wine containing whole grains of glutinous rice (and often also Sweet Osmanthus flowers), called jiuniang.
In northern China, people traditionally eat dumplings on Dongzhi. The origin of this tradition is from a great Chinese medical expert named Zhang Zhongjing during the second century when Han kings were ruling. On one cold winter day, he saw the poor suffering from chilblains on their ears. Feeling sympathetic, he ordered his servants to make dumplings with lamb and other ingredients, and distribute them among the poor to keep them warm, in order to save their ears from chilblains. Since the dumplings were shaped like ears, Zhang named the dish “qùhán jiāoěr tāng” or dumpling soup that expels the cold. From that time on, it has been a tradition to eat dumplings on the day of Dongzhi.
Old traditions also require people with the same surname or from the same clan to gather at their ancestral temples to worship on this day. There is always a grand reunion dinner following the sacrificial ceremony.
This festival is at least 3000 years old. The people of Egypt and Eastern Europe used to worship the Holy Virgin Goddess Kore (Isis in Egypt), holding her to be the inner soul of Mother Earth, the female spirit of the Universe. Her festival, the Koreion, was held on the Winter Solstice’s shortest day, which by their calendar calculations was 6th January. On this day Kore was supposed to be giving birth to the New Year God, the Aeon (originally meaning life but tended to mean ‘age’, ‘forever’ or eternity). At this festival, the priests announced to the public that the Holy Virgin had brought forth the saviour, the Aeon, whose image was decorated with gold stars and the sign of the cross, and was carried seven times around the temple.
When all these festivals were being celebrated with great enthusiasm even in the fourth century, there was no Christmas celebration yet. How Christmas originated (of course by appropriating Mithraic festivals) will be discussed tomorrow.
To be continued.