Party In the Dark

10 Dec

Winter Solstice celebrations have been around since mankind first discovered that the sun rises and sets during different times of the day throughout the year. When mankind moved to the northern latitudes, people had an even greater need for some type of diversion from the cold, dark, depressing days. December 21st, being the longest night of the year, aroused superstitions. Lacking knowledge of astronomy, people feared that the sun would fail to return unless certain rituals were performed. Besides alleviating fear, these community events gave people a reason feast and exchange gifts in the middle of the most difficult season of the year.

As long ago as 2500 B.C.E. in ancient Egypt, special meaning was assigned to the shortest day of the year. The Egyptians believed that the sun god, Osiris, was murdered on that day by his brother, Set, in an attempt to take over the throne. His wife, Isis, used magic to bring her husband back to life briefly. She later gave birth to their son Horus, who was the reincarnation of his father. This rebirth of the sun god was celebrated with feasts, fires, and decorations. Egyptian texts are among the earliest religious documents that make reference to celebrating Winter Solstice, a practice that spread to other cultures.

When the Romans conquered Greece, from around 200 to 30 BC, they adopted the pantheon of Greek gods. One of these was Cronus, whom they renamed Saturn, the god of agriculture. Romans held the feast of Saturnalia in December, after the autumn planting was done, honoring Saturn. They performed religious rites, visited friends, feasted, exchanged gifts of fruit (representing fertility), dolls (human sacrifice), and candles (the return of light to the earth). Their parties lasted for around a week, starting on Dec. 17th. Saturnalia was reportedly the Roman’s favorite event of the year. On the good side, businesses, courts and schools were closed; people took vacations. Slaves were exempt from punishment; they partied alongside their owners. People forgave each other for grudges and quarrels. On the bad side, crime was rampant. Drunk, disorderly behavior was common; people ran naked through the streets. Historians report that human sacrifice occurred; a slave or criminal was crowned “king” and allowed to behave without restraint before being killed at the end of the week.

In 312 AD the Roman Emperor Constantine became a Christian. The Roman people were reluctant to give up their wild pagan holiday. Only by 500 AD did the well-behaved holiday of Christmas begin to replace Saturnalia. It took hundreds of years to decondition them from expecting to indulge in lawless behavior at this time of year. As Roman Empire spread Christianity throughout Europe, local religious traditions were blended into Christmas, such as Northern Europeans bringing evergreen trees into their homes.

Winter Solstice celebrations have been around since the beginning of civilization. People like to acknowledge the waning length of daylight. They enjoy having a reason to eat well, exchange gifts, and take time off from work and school. Whether it is through serious religious ceremony, unrestrained behavior, or warm friendship, this time of year has always offered an opportunity to party — in the dark.

3 Responses to “Party In the Dark”

  1. piper December 13, 2010 at 10:07 pm #

    I thought this was a really good article, I personally enjoy debating and talking about history, i liked this article because i sort of looked into this subject of Greek gods and found this story, but not completely explained. Basically i wanted to thank the web makers for making this article and i look forward and hope you will continue making new articles soon. I would like to hear about the revolutionary war if that is possible.

    • teenwebzine December 16, 2010 at 6:59 pm #

      Thank you so much. I had to research Winter Solstice because I get depressed this time of year, and its good to know that people throughout history have enjoyed a good party to lift their spirits. Saturnalia was a riot! In every sense of the word!

      So, you want to read about the Revolutionary War? Your wish is our command! Check in with us later, we’d be happy to oblige. The interesting thing about history is that it’s not always taught honestly. We’ll see what we can discover for you.

  2. Dot Davis December 19, 2010 at 4:13 pm #

    Thanks for that fascinating history, Chris! My husband’s mentioned that our Christmas traditions have roots in pagan Winter Solstice goings-on, and now I have “the rest of the story”. Very interesting!

    If I ever hear anyone yell, “Let’s party like it’s 100 BC!”, I think I’ll run the other way!!!

    Great job with this site. I appreciate all of your introductory comments very much. You have a nice, witty style! 🙂

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