It’s the nadir of the year. The longest night, the shortest day. What’re you gonna do?
What else? Have a party!
That’s apparently been the Winter Solstice solution of choice for cultures all over the Northern Hemisphere since at least Neolithic times.
|The famous triple-spiral design incised inside the Newgrange tomb, popularly thought to be Celtic, actually predates the Celts by several thousand years. It bears a striking resemblance to sun symbols seen elsewhere in northern Europe. The opening of the tomb precisely frames the rising sun of Winter Solstice.|
Humans have undoubtedly been aware of the Winter Solstice for much longer than 5,000 years, but some of the earliest evidence that they took it seriously can be found at Newgrange, Ireland, where a Neolithic passage tomb that is thought to be at least 5,000 years old is aligned with the rising Winter Solstice sun.
I can’t find any archaeological evidence that those early Irish folk had alcoholic beverages, but it’s fairly likely. Fermentation is a process that happens naturally. Pottery jars discovered at Jiahu in China, that date back as early as 7000 BCE (about 9,000 years old) were found to contain the residue of a fermented beverage made from honey, rice, and hawthorn fruit, so it’s not hard to imagine that other people may also have created fermented drinks, but stored them in less long-lasting containers.
|Patrick E. McGovern discovered that these 9,000-year-old pottery jars from Jiahu in China contained the world’s earliest known fermented drink.|
Those are two of the four essential ingredients for a universally human Winter Solstice celebration: (1) knowledge that the Winter Solstice is a thing that happens, and (2) alcoholic beverages to drink. The other two are (3) Food for feasting, and (4) fires for warmth and light.
Maria Kvilhaug offers a detailed description of Old Norse Jól, or Yule traditions and cosmology. “The Yule celebration as a whole was often referred to as “drinking jól”, as in “to drink” yule. This descriptive term strongly suggests that drink was an important part of the celebration,” she wrote.
|Greek Poseidon (left) and Roman Saturn (right) each were honored by their devotees with several days of drinking and feasting at the Winter Solstice.|
The Norse weren’t the only ones who partied hearty on Winter Solstice. The ancient Greeks celebrated the Festival of Poseidon, god of the sea, with several days of drinking and parties. Perhaps better known these days is the Roman Saturnalia, celebrating a different god, but at the same time of year, and in pretty much exactly the same way–with feasting and lots of drinking.
In eastern Asia, the Winter Solstice festival of Dōngzhì focuses more on food than drink, with dumplings served more often in the north and dumpling-like filled rice balls called tangyuan served more often in the south.
|Dōngzhì delicacies seem to focus on rice flour wrapped around assorted fillings. The main point: they are all warm and tasty.|
The Iranian tradition of Yaldā Night also centers on food, especially red-colored fruits, and sweets. It is a gathering of family and friends to share the last fruits of summer and prepare for the leaner period of winter. The gathering continues until after midnight, the middle part of the year’s longest night, thus seeing themselves through an inauspicious time into a more hopeful period. Another traditional practice is reading or reciting poetry (especially the poetry of Divan-e-Hafez, sometimes used for divination of the future).
|Hafez poetry and fruits help carry this Persian lady safely through Yaldā Night.|
The fourth ingredient for a quintessential Winter Solstice celebration–especially one in the colder parts of the Northern Hemisphere–is a good, warm bonfire to light up the night and keep bad spirits at bay.
Most of us know about the Yule Log, which was adopted as a Christmas tradition throughout much of northern Europe. This is a large log, sometimes a whole tree, burnt through the course of the Yule season. If there was anything left, it sometimes would be kept to light the following year’s log.
Large outdoor bonfires were often a feature of Yule, Beltane, midsummer and Halloween, in pre-Christian traditions. More recent festivals have combined the bonfire idea with the even more widespread and popular tradition of the Christmas Tree. After Christmas old, dried-up trees from many households (fire hazards, by that time) are sometimes brought together and burned in a public event.
|San Francisco’s Richmond-area “Friends of the Rootless Forest” safely burn discarded Christmas trees on Ocean Beach for their annual “Post-Yule Pyre” event.|
Many thanks to Patrick E. McGovern, the biomolecular archaeologist who did the analysis of the Jiahu pottery, for both the photo (thanks also to Z. Juzhong and the Henan Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology), and for an interesting article about the find.
Many thanks to Gods and Monsters for the image of Poseidon (there’s an informative article at this link, too), and to Antiques.com for the photo of the Carthaginian marble statue of Saturn and the accompanying article about it.
Many thanks to Wikimedia Commons for the photo of the Persian lady reading Hafez while surrounded by fruits on Yalda Night.