A brief introduction to Winter Holidays

The most inclusive way to call this time of the year is holidays, winter holidays. In many different cultures, the annual festivities and holidays happen as a transition from the old year to a new one, coinciding with something purely related to nature and science.

The days 21st and 22nd of December represent the astronomical event called solstice. On the Northern Hemisphere, the day is known as the winter solstice, but on the Southern Hemisphere it is the opposite, the summer solstice. Subsequently, the other solstice occurs on days 20 or 21st of June, when the seasons are switched between the Earth’s hemispheres.

Calendars and the understanding of seasonal changes

The first Europeans who understood the calendars and seasons by looking at the sky were the Vučedol Culture. Largely based around the Central and South-East Europe, their most notable settlement was on a place near today Vukovar in Croatia. While the Vučedol Culture likely had their prime about 5000 years ago, there were other early calendar in the Ancient Middle East, most notably Babylon.

On the other hand, counting and understanding seasons and day lengths was another intriguing task for ancient civilisations. As a result, they assigned particular milestones or moments of time to gods, giving them particular festivities. It happened all around the world, from China and Japan to Native Americans, from Scandinavia and the Sami, to Australia. Finally, the time around the winter solstice resulted in many traditions of winter holidays.

Paulus van Vianen: The Feast of the Gods, silver, 1604. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam (from their online collection)

Read also: The Sami, wise people of the North

Mediterranean Winter Holidays: Saturnalia in Ancient Rome

In Ancient Rome, Saturn was the god of agriculture, wealth, plenty, and transition through the period of time. Moreover, he represented the role of the Greek god Kronos, mostly known as the god/titan of time.

The festive time of the year, the time when the winter solstice announces longer days, was the time of winter holidays. In the honour of Saturn, Ancient Romans would organise big public celebrations, including a carnival and gambling along with a sacrifice at the Temple of Saturn, in the heart of the Forum.

Winter Holidays: Saturnalia. Saturn Temple in Rome.
A broader view of the Roman Forum with the Saturn Temple on the right side.

It is all about the transition from one cycle to another. Finally, holidays and festivities allow some relaxation time, days off, and fewer rules. Although it might not be the case in this particular 2020 when I am writing it, it doesn’t mean that we don’t have ways to enjoy holidays, at least with some tasty food and more sleep.

Sol Invictus

In the later periods of the Roman Empire, the official god of Sun was Sol Invictus, the Invincible Sun. During the late Autumn and peak winter, the Sun is low above the horizon, while beyond the Arctic Circle it is even down all day. However, the Sun is considered “invincible” in these religious beliefs, as it always comes back next year, through the circles of the calendars.

Winter Holidays - Sol Invictus
Sol Invictus, marble relief found on one of the Archaeological sites in Rome, source for credits

As a result, the Sol Invictus became almost a single, unique god in the pagan ancient world. Guess what? Christianity is the religion based on believing in only one god. Most importantly, he was celebrated through the Saturnalia winter holidays, estimated to be on 25th of December. Gift-giving was quite a common tradition during these holidays.

Calendars and Christianity

The word calendar comes from Latin. It derives from calendae, the first day of the month in ancient Roman customs. Long before the globalisations and standardised calendars, calculations were diverse. That is to say, we can’t always be sure about the exact dates of some events. For example, we mentioned the 25th of December as the Sun Invictus day. However, it is/was only an estimation. Nevertheless, it happened to become the Christmas day in Christian traditions later on.

Again, the exact time when Jesus Christ was born is unclear. The religion created traditions, and these traditions came as a result of some previous traditions.

To sum it all up, we need to be aware that “happy holidays” is an inclusive way to show the care and attention to other people in this time of the year. Regardless of calendars, this time of the year has always been festive. In other words, there were always reasons to wish someone happy winter holidays. Finally, we should never assume that everyone has the same beliefs and traditions we do.

Read also: A possible first ever humanitarian was Santa Claus

Winter Holidays - Santa Claus Village
The festive topics are going on, as in a few days it is the Christmas trees’ turn!

Some sources and further reading:

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