Ancient Origins of Christmas

The Winter Solstice

“In pagan Rome and Greece, in the days of the Teutonic barbarians, in the remote times of ancient Egyptian civilization, in the infancy of the race East and West and North and South, the period of the winter solstice was ever a period of rejoicing and festivity.”

–William Walsh

Feasting

Festivals in ancient societies occurred in accordance with agricultural practices. Winter time was a period of leisure, crops having already been harvested, and some livestock slaughtered so there were fewer mouths to feed. After the harvest, alcohol was made from dried grains left to ferment. This combination of leisure, fresh meat, harvested crops and alcohol, made winter time the perfect occasion for exuberant parties

The winter solstice is a festival which arose from these excellent party conditions. The solstice occurs when half of the Earth is farthest from the sun, causing the shortest day and longest night of the year. In the Northern hemisphere the Solstice falls around December 21st.

The Winter Solstice in Ancient Egypt

Egyptian harvesting fruit

In ancient Egypt, the winter solstice coincided with the waters of the Nile receding from the banks of the river. As the water gradually retreated, a harvest would arise in the damp soil left behind, creating the perfect conditions for a winter festival.

There are several different gods connected to the winter solstice. One legend that is oddly familiar is that of the beloved god Osiris. The story goes that he was murdered by his jealous brother Set, who cut up his body and hid parts of it all over Egypt. His wife, Isis, searched for Osiris’ remains and returned him to life on December 25. His death and resurrection came to symbolize the rising and setting of the sun.

Ancient Egyptians celebrated the solstice by decorating their homes with the green leaves of date palms. The leaves were green year round which signified immortality. They were used as a symbol of the triumph of life over death.

The end of the date season, when the fruit must be harvested, coincides with the solstice. This may suggest a further connection between the palm and the winter festivals since the end of a harvest would mean an abundance of the fruit. The trees were a bountiful and useful resource for the Egyptians, the fruits were used for nourishment, the wood for shelter, and the leaves, when blanched, could be written on.

The Winter Solstice in Ancient Rome

Ancient Roman Feast

In ancient Roman cultures the solstice was celebrated with a feast called Saturnalia. The festival had many similar observances to our present day Christmas traditions. People visited and feasted with one another, giving presents, and decorating their homes with candles and evergreen branches.

Saturnalia was a holiday of complete relaxation and unrestricted merriment. All businesses were closed, including the courts, and war was halted until the end of the festivities. Major features of the festival included excessive drinking, gambling, dancing and general partying.

A unique aspect of the Saturnalia was the tradition of social inversion. This was the practice of slaves being waited upon by their masters. In fact, during Saturnalia equality was a common theme, everyone was given equal portions of the same wine and food.No favoritism was allowed, and no one could be ill-tempered or threatening.