Does it feel like you are getting up in the middle of the night at the moment? That you are dragging yourself to work or school when you should be in bed because it’s just so dark? Now imagine that you don’t have any electric lights and the only light you have is from candles or oil lamps and open fires. So maybe it should be no surprise that people have been marking the day that the nights stop getting longer for as long as we can tell.
The midwinter solstice, the shortest day of the year, has been celebrated for thousands of years. How do we know? Well, many neolithic henges and chambers have been found to be aligned to the winter solstice dawn or sunset. Stonehenge, for example, is aligned with the setting sun on midwinters day. Although this might not prove that the people who built these monuments ‘celebrated’ midwinter as such, it must have been an incredibly important time of year. It also shows that they must have had a good understanding of astronomy and have studied the sky over many years.
The Romans also had one of their most important festivals over the midwinter period – Saturnalia. On the 17th of December, a ceremony dedicated to the God Saturn would start the festival followed by feasting, gift giving and general partying. Slaves and their masters would trade positions, gambling was allowed for the only time in the year and children would become masters for the day. Greenery was taken into the house and lots of candles were used. These festivities could last a week! Does it remind you of any other winter festivals by any chance?
So tonight we had our own Saturnalia celebrations – we decorated the table with leaves and candles and had a Roman style feast with breads, cheese, olives, stuffed chicken, salads, eggs, grapes, cheesecake and grape juice to drink. Had we really got our act together we could have made some stuffed dates, pizza or honey cakes too, but well, we also a bit busy getting ready for christmas!
The kids were happy enough to be the masters during the feast but I had to draw the line at staying up all night. It would be interesting to find out how that would have played out in real Roman houses!