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Festival of Midwinter: Traditions and Plants

There are more ways to see the season through than just with eggnog and Santa hats

By Fez Inkwright

This time of year is, for many, a time of fir trees and stockings, or of lighting candles and dreidel games. But the tradition of celebrating the dark months of midwinter has existed for thousands of years the world over, and there are more ways to see the season through than just with eggnog and Santa hats.

The use of logs

Typically made from birch or ash, the Yule log is the centrepiece of the celebrations of Yule. In parts of Ireland, all household fires would be doused on the solstice, and then relit with a flame from the Yule fire in the centre of the settlement to join the community together as one. In Scotland, similarly, one central log would be burnt, and celebrations would continue as long as it was still aflame—leading to much demand for the largest logs! Once the log was burnt through, pieces of it would be broken off and kept for protection throughout the year; and at the beginning of the following Yule, a piece of the old log would be used to light the new one, so that the old year might give life to the new.

The Holly and the Oak

There is more to holly then decretive wreaths at this time of year to bring nature to our homes. In early lore across Wales and Southern England, it is on this day that two mythical figures—the Holly King and the Oak King—do battle, with the Oak King defeating and taking over the reign of the Holly King. At the summer solstice they battle again, and the roles are reversed.

Holly King and the Oak King—do battle

Mistletoe

Often we know of Mistletoe as the spark of romance, in the sweet winter kiss. This parasitic plant often seen as tumble weed like spheres in tree tops is a symbol of fertility, as it remains green and plump in the dead of winter where other plants become baron of life. In Roman times it was hung over doorways to protect the household, with connection to peace and love.

The harvest is at the heart of feasting

The Slavic holiday Koročun is also celebrated on the day of the winter solstice. It is believed that on this night that the Black God and other spirits of darkness are at their strongest; the old sun is defeated by the Black God on this night, and in the morning is resurrected as the new sun. Like many other midwinter festivals, it is celebrated with feasting and communal fires.

The Punjabi festival of Lohri is similarly celebrated around the solstice with bonfires and singing, but is held in memory of the sun god Surya. Food is thrown onto the fire to symbolise the ending of the year and the beginning of the next.

In Iran, Yalda Night is another festival to fall on the solstice. During this longest night, friends and family gather to eat red-coloured foods (symbolising life and the new sunrise), and read poetry. These parties are held as a protection against negative mentalities, which are at their peak during the darker months. The parties last throughout the night, where the last fruits of the summer are eaten, and then the new year is welcomed in with good company.

Fire, Feasts, Friends

Ancient Romans took the idea of a midwinter get-together even further with the festival of Saturnalia; a fortnight-long carnival of gambling, feasting, partying, and gift-giving. Societal roles would be reversed, with slaveowners serving their slaves food and drink, and slaves and freedmen being treated in the same way for the period of festivities. It was held in honour of Saturn, an agricultural deity, as a way of commemorating how the world had been during the mythological Golden Age where harvests were plenty and no man had to work. Another Roman festival celebrated around this time was dedicated to Sol Invictus, the Unconquerable Sun, to celebrate the return of spring.

So however or whatever you celebrate, however difficult this year may have been, know that we’re now at the turning of the season; the days can only get longer as the summer sun returns. And if you need some ideas for how to welcome it in? A warm fire, some holly and mistletoe, and the company of friends and family (video calls included!) is historically approved.


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