During the period of the darkest days and longest nights, people of the north have celebrated the winter solstice, after which the dark is in retreat and the growing season rapidly approaches. Such celebrations included feasting and lights to raise people’s spirits during belt-tightening times when winter supplies were carefully rationed.
In ancient Egypt, Osiris died and was entombed. Priests attributed increasing light to his re-birth to a virgin. Persian families celebrated with nuts and pomegranates and some stayed awake all night to welcome the morning. Romans held Saturnalia and celebrated the end of the planting season with games, feasts and gift-giving. Hanukkah, a celebration of the re-dedication of the temple following a purification ritual, probably originated in a festival of light.
The Hopi of Arizona welcomed the Kachinas, protective spirits from the mountains. St. Lucia’s Day is a festival of lights celebrated in Scandinavia incorporated with earlier Norse solstice traditions, such as lighting fires to ward off spirits during the longest night. Dong Zhi in China started as an end-of-harvest festival. In Poland, the ancient pre-Christian December solstice observance involved people showing forgiveness and sharing food.
Western church leaders in the fourth century selected Dec. 25 to mark the birth of Christ because this date was recognized throughout the Roman Empire as the birthday of various pagan gods. Symbols and practices of pagan origin: holly, ivy, mistletoe, yule log, the giving of gifts, decorated evergreen trees, magical reindeer, etc. were incorporated into Christmas. In Massachusetts, Puritans unsuccessfully tried to ban Christmas entirely during the 17th century, because of its heathenism. The English Puritan Parliament abolished Christmas in 1647.
History has a lot to teach us about how and why we celebrate the best of foods and fellowship at this time of year, most of all about how much we need to help each other.
Two thousand years since the worship of Mammon, a personification of material greed, was denounced as a false god in the New Testament, that worship is preached around the world by economists and politicians reckless of planetary destruction and human suffering.
But at the winter solstice we struggle to set aside the false god and comfort each other with gifts and feasting and lights. We can emulate St. Nicholas by supporting projects that bring people together to share good food. We can give special foods as gifts and put nourishing foods into hampers instead of the unhealthy, over-processed products of profit-maximizing corporations and we can add our traditional baked goods as innocent treats.
I am thinking of T.H. White’s definition of happiness as a by-product of achievement, as electricity passed along a wire brings light as a by-product.
And I am wishing everyone good, seasonal, local food and good friends and good times and happiness as we head toward brighter days.
Marjorie Stewart is past chairwoman of Nanaimo Foodshare Society. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.