The Feast of Juul (where we get the term ‘Yule’ from at this time of year) was a pre-Christian festival observed in Scandinavia at the time of the December solstice.
People would light fires to symbolise the heat and light of the returning sun and a Juul (or Yule) log was brought in and dropped in the hearth as a tribute to the Norse god Thor.
The Yule Log often was an entire tree carefully chosen and brought into the house with great ceremony, and sometimes the largest end of the log would be placed into the fire hearth while the rest of the tree stuck out into the room.
Ther winter solstice festival Saturnalia began on December 17 and lasted for seven days in In Ancient Rome.
These Saturnalian banquets were held from as far back as around 217 BCE to honor Saturn, the father of the gods.
The holiday was celebrated with a sacrifice at the Temple of Saturn, in the Roman Forum, and a public banquet, followed by private gift-giving, continual partying, and a carnival atmosphere that overturned Roman social norms.
The festival was characterised as a free-for-all when all discipline and orderly behaviour was ignored.
Wars were interrupted or postponed, gambling was permitted, slaves were served by their masters and all grudges and quarrels were forgotten.
It was traditional to offer gifts of imitation fruit (a symbol of fertility), dolls (symbolic of the custom of human sacrifice), and candles (reminiscent of the bonfires traditionally associated with pagan solstice celebrations).
The Saturnalia would degenerate into a week-long orgy of debauchery and crime – giving rise to the modern use of the term ‘saturnalia’, meaning a period of unrestrained license and revelry. A mock ‘king’ was even chosen from a group of slaves or convicts and was allowed to behave as he pleased for seven days (until his eventual ritual execution).
The poet Catullus considered it to be “the best of days.”
While it is not accurate, I consistently identify December 21st as the Winter Solstice:
The winter solstice happens every year when the Sun reaches its most southerly declination of 23.5 degrees. In other words, when the North Pole is tilted furthest – 23.5 degrees – away from the Sun, delivering the fewest hours of sunlight of the year. The day after the winter solstice marks the beginning of lengthening days, leading up to the summer solstice in June. While it more often than not falls on December 21st, the exact time of the solstice varies each year.
My personal celebration of the Winter Solstice doesn’t begin to approach the zeal of the Feast of Juul or Saturnalia though my inclination to observance is not diminished. I believe it is part of the human instinct to become excited about the lengthening of the days. I have always adopted December 21st as the occasion for that enthusiasm. Astrological precision in this matter is unimportant to me. It is in my opinion a mere nicety that the Earth does not move at a constant speed in its elliptical orbit (and therefore that the seasons are not of equal length).
No doubt the nearness of the Winter Solstice to the commencement of the New Year contributes to the fervour of the event. It combines the recognizable improvement of sunlight with the hope of new (though less palpable) beginnings. As jaundiced as one may be about the Festive Season and New Year’s Resolutions it is hard not to be touched by the fervour of the time even if the absorption is subliminal.
All this favourable serendipity pales however when I remove myself from the abstract to consider the unfortunate consequences of some very real Christmas planning. I have just got off the phone with my brother-in-law who described to me the unfolding of these events up north. Things are not going as well as had been hoped. It seems that the inconvenient details of life have once again interfered with human plans.
In a nutshell the plan was that there would be a reunion between a mother and daughter after a 13-year abeyance between the two. After some logistical hiccups endured by the mother in getting here from England (problems which with time and persistence were resolved), the expectation was that the planned reunion between her and her daughter was set to take place as hoped. Unfortunately the daughter (who had no prior knowledge of the proposed reunion nor of the planning that preceded its arrangement) unwittingly complicated the beneficent plot by encountering difficulties of her own. Essentially the daughter had what she felt to be a disappointing performance at a university examination and that sentiment succeeded to tarnish her general demeanour. This discouragement was exaggerated upon her return home, where she discovered what she mistakenly interpreted as surreptitious plans to redecorate her modest apartment (made admittedly furtively though only for purposes of hosting her mother). This unexplained intelligence collided with the daughter’s already depressed mood and then detoured her scheduled appearance at the planned reunion (at my brother-in-law’s place). Of course there were repercussions everywhere, including my sister (who was integral to these surprise arrangements), my brother-in-law (who had already spent most of the past weekend resolving the mother’s travel conundrums), the mother (who is no doubt questioning whether this was a good idea in the first place), the daughter (who may or may not now know what is going on in the background) and my niece (with whom the daughter lives).
I can only express my sympathy for all involved. There is in any event nothing else I can do from this distance. Regrettably the scenario (as tortured as it is) is sadly reminiscent of so many family conventions at this time of year. Christmas can put everyone on edge for one reason or another. On the one hand I miss not being part of the mix to experience its pungency; on the other hand, I am thankful to be removed from the turmoil. Likely the wrinkles of even this ruffled scene will be ironed out in due course, hopefully sooner than later, but it nonetheless serves to remind me that I am not entirely unhappy about watching it all unravel from a distance. It naturally stings to be reminded that the ideal of Christmas doesn’t always manifest itself in a way we had hoped or imagined. It also makes me question the depth of my own private rumination upon the signals of Christmas.
My Winter Solstice was spent in comparative tranquillity. I didn’t get out of bed until after nine o’clock this morning. After a leisurely breakfast we cycled in the unseasonably warm morning air. Then I went to Fifth Avenue Salon for a haircut, pedicure and foot massage. My only disappointment in all of it was to learn of the distortions taking place up north. Oh well…