Winter Festivals

As we approach our first seventeenth (argh!) Christmas in the Glen, here’s an update of a summary of the various year-end festivals that may be applicable to my friends of many religions and none and of cultures multitudinous in space and time. This is an update of a list I first cobbled together circa 1997, to accompany my first “Generic winter festival greeting of your choice” card…


Traditionally, a time of giving to the needy – most notably from your credit card to the lonely and emaciated figures of Jeff Bezos and the remaining high street retailers. This commercial Bacchanalia occasionally shows signs of incipient corruption by spirituality and reflection, something that those who truly believe in the values of Christmas will resist to the final ring of the last cash register.

Christmas is the festival of the Nativity and commemorates the birth of Jesus Christ, in the Christian liturgy on the night of December 24/25. Christmas was once a moveable feast celebrated many different times during the year. The choice of December 25 was made by Pope Julius I in the fourth century AD to pre-empt the pagan rituals of the Winter Solstice. In the twentieth century however it has become a fixed feast celebrated (or at least dreaded) for most of the year.

Some Christian church sects, called old calendarists, never got the hang of the Gregorian calendar and still celebrate Christmas on January 7 (Dec. 25 of the Julian calendar). A useful excuse for those you’ve forgotten to buy presents for in December…

Many of the traditions associated with Christmas (giving gifts, lighting a Yule log, singing carols, decorating an evergreen, sacrificing large poultry (or small relatives) hark back to festivals from other, older religions, just a few of which are:


Having worked at a company with a strong Orthodox Jewish contigent (that’s Orthodox, definitely NOT orthodox), I may have a slightly skewed view of Chanukah: from an outsider’s point of view, it appears to involve the graduated consumption of heavy duty pastries, starting with Jam doughnuts and working up to full chocolate monstrosities over a period of several days. I am however informed that there’s a historical background to this, although I’m still not sure where the doughnuts come in:

Judea has an unfortunate geography – it’s on the primary land and sea route between Europe, Asia and Africa. With such strategic importance, it has at various points, been occupied by nearly every imperial power with three elephants and a chariot to call its own, including the Egyptians, Hittites, Syrians and Greeks, occasionally at the same time, thus leading to not insignificant disputes over whose turn it was to play conqueror that week.

In about 200BC, Judea was under the control of the Graeco-Syrian forces of Antiochus IV. In a strangely ironic and inverse resonance with our times, although not allowed to maintain a defence force or take part in foreign affairs, the Judeans had hitherto enjoyed semi-autonomous control within the country. Antiochus IV, however prohibited the observance of Jewish customs and ordered the adoption of Hellenistic culture, including Greek customs, language and religions.

Antiochus’ motive was to bring together all the peoples of Israel into one homogenous nation and tried to achieve this through the classic management approaches of brute force and the very real threat of death. While some Jews accepted this ruling (particularly the upper classes), changing their names and following Greek traditions in place of their own. the majority spurned this imposition and refused to comply.

The resulting guerilla war was led by a man called Matthalius and his sons, culminating three years later in the victory of the Jews over the superior forces of the Greeks. Upon re-entering Jerusalem, the Jews found that the temple had been defiled by the Greeks – in fact when they went to relight the Holy Light they found that the sacred oil used to light it had been spoiled. They found just one small jar with enough oil for one day. This was lit but instead of burning out, lasted for eight days and nights until more oil was fetched. This was decreed to be a miracle according to the Jewish Oral Law, the Talmud, and to be celebrated as Chanukah or Hannukah.

To celebrate Chanukah eight candles or jars of oil are placed in a Menorah (more properly, the Hannukiyyah), a specially shaped candelabrum. An additional candle, the Shamash (servant) is placed higher up and is used to light the candles. The candles are lit one per night until the eighth night when all the candles are alight. At the same time prayers are said and songs sung, games are played and special Chanukah foods eaten.


The Romans celebrated the feast of the god Saturn with the festival of Saturnalia. This ran from the middle of December until the (then) January 1st. With crys of “Jo Saturnalia!” the celebration would include masquerades in the streets, big festive meals during which masters and slaves would exchange places, visiting friends, and the exchange of good-luck gifts called Strenae (lucky fruits). Halls were indeed decked with garlands of laurel and green trees lit with candles. Sound familiar?

This was a fun and festive time for the Roman, but entirely too much fun for the early Christians, who thought it an abomination to honor the pagan god and who would much rather a solemn and religious holiday to celebrate the birth of the Messiah, not one of cheer and merriment. Unsurprisingly, Saturnalia continued until the church finally admitted that banning fun was not the best way to win converts and decided to go with the flow by a strategic merger of Saturnalia and Christmas.

Novo Hel

Novo (new) Hel (sun) was the Gaulish festival of the Solstice. Its main claim to fame today is as one of the possible origins of the word Noël, the other two candidates being Judaic and a religious Latin term, linked to Dies natalis (the birthday of Christ).


The Japanese Buddhist Festival of the Broken Needles. No, this isn’t about the aftermath of Christmas, when you spend hours removing pine needles from improbable and painful places – Hari-Kuyo is all about sewing needles. It is held on December 8 each year and has been carried on since at least 400 AD. Once only observed by tailors and dressmakers, today anyone who sews participates. A special shrine is made for the needles containing offerings of food and scissors and thimbles. A pan of tofu is the centre of the shrine and all the broken and bent needles are inserted into it. As the needles go into the tofu, the sewer recites a special prayer in thanks for its fine service over the year. The needles find their final resting place at sea, as devotees everywhere wrap their tofu in paper and launch them out to sea. A warning to fish in the Sea of Japan: Eating passing packages of tofu can be bad for your health.

Festival of the Radishes

This unusual event takes place in Oaxaca, Mexico on December 23 each year. It dates to the mid-ninteenth century and commemorates the introduction of the radish by the Spanish colonists. Radishes in this region grow to the size of yams but are not the rounded shape we usually see. They are twisted and and distorted by growing in the rocky soil. These unusual shapes are exploited as local artisans carve them into elaborate scenes from the Bible, from history, and from the Aztec legends. Cash prizes are awarded and the evening culminates with a spectacular firework display. I’m really, really afraid that all of this is true…


Ganna is the Ethiopian celebration of Christmas. Legend has it that the shepherds rejoiced when they learned of the birth of Christ and they waved their hooked staffs about and played Ganna. This is the origin of the game called Ganna that is traditionally played on Christmas Day (January 7 – the Julian date of Christmas) by all the men and boys in Ethiopia. One assumes the women have more sense.


The ancient traditions of Pakistan pre-date the Christian era. During winter solstice, an ancient demigod returns to collect prayers and deliver them to Dezao, the supreme being. During this celebrations women and girls are purified by taking ritual baths. The men pour water over their heads while they hold up bread. Then the men and boys are purified with water and must not sit on chairs until evening when goat’s blood is sprinkled on their faces. Following this purification, a great festival begins, with singing, dancing, bonfires, and feasting on goat tripe and other such delicacies.

Butter Sculpture Festival

To celebrate the New Year in Tibet, Buddhist monks create elaborate yak-butter sculptures depicting a different story or fable each year. The sculptures reach 30 feet high and are lit with special butter lamps. Awards are given for the best butter sculptures.

Feast of the Ass

The Feast of the Ass was a Middle Ages Christian festival – at one time this was a solemn celebration reenacting the flight of the holy family into Egypt and ending with Mass in the church. The festival became very popular as it transformed into a humorous parody in which the ass was led into the church and treated as an honored guest while the priest and the congregation all brayed like asses. The Church supressed it in the fifteenth century, although it remained popular and did not die out until years later.


Dosmoche is the Tibetan Celebration of the Dying Year. Lasting five days, it centres around a magical pole covered with stars, crosses, and pentagrams made of string. Dancers dress up in hideous masks to frighten away the evil spirits for the coming year. Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to work against the Peoples Liberation Army. Feasting and prayers fill the days and the finale is when the pole is torn down by the townsfolk.

Winter Solstice

The Celtic festival of the Winter Solstice is held on the eve of the shortest day of the year. During the first millennium in what is today Scotland, the Druids celebrated Winter Solstice honoring their Sun God and rejoicing his return as the days got longer, signaling the coming of spring. Also called Yule, this tradition still lives today in the Wiccan traditions and in many cultures around the world.

A huge log – the Yule Log – is brought into an outdoor clearing and becomes part of a great bonfire. Everyone dances and sings around the fire. All the noise and great excitement is said to awaken the sun from its long winter sleep, hurrying spring on its way as the cycle begins once again and the days grow longer than the nights. But at least the pubs now stay open around the clock.


Before Christianity the Swedish people celebrated “Midvinterblot” at winter solstice. It simply means “mid-winter-blood”, and featured both animal and human sacrifice. This tradition took place at certain cult places, and basically every old Swedish church is built on such a place. The pagan tradition was finally abandoned around 1200 AD, due to the persistence of serial missionaries (of course the first few lots were sacrificed too, by the Vikings). Midvinterblot paid tribute to the local gods, appealing to them to let go of the winter’s grip. The winters in Scandinavia are dark and grim, and these were the days before central heating. And the Gods were powerful.


To this day the Swedish name for Christmas is Jul (Yule), and the Jul gnome has a more important role than Father Christmas or the Christ child. It’s a direct evolution of the old Midvinterblot festival – you don’t kill those pagan traditions so easily. Indeed, the old Viking religion with Thor and his friends is still practiced by some people, somewhat less bloodily and, given the cost of drink in Scandinavia, rather more expensively.


The Mesopotamians hedged their bets by believing in many gods, under the aegis of their chief god – Marduk. Each year as winter arrived it was believed that Marduk would do battle with the monsters of chaos. To assist Marduk in his struggle the Mesopotamians held a festival for the New Year. This was Zagmuk, the New Year’s festival that lasted for 12 days.

During Zagmuk, it was the tradition for the Mesopotamian king to return to the temple of Marduk and swear his faithfulness to the god. The tradition also called for the king to die at the end of the year and to return with Marduk to battle at his side. In one of the earlier known examples of executive delegation, the Mesopotamians used a body double for the king. A criminal was chosen and dressed in royal clothes. He was given all the respect and privileges of a real king. At the end of the celebration this “king” was stripped of the royal clothes and slain, while the real king carried on with the revels. Marduk’s opinion of this is not recorded, but it may be worth noting that Mesopotamian Empire has been in more or less constant decline since Gilgamesh’s time.


The Persians and the Babylonians celebrated a similar festival fo Zagmuk, called the Sacaea. Part of that celebration included the exchanging of places, the slaves would become the masters and the masters were to obey, something that was much later picked up by the Romans for Saturnalia.

The above information was culled from a variety of sources, both online and literary, all of whom should consider themselves thanked. Words and attitude are entirely home-grown.

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