Christmas first appeared in an early Roman calendar over 300 years after the birth of Jesus and it took several centuries for the tradition to spread. Saturnalia, an ancient Roman festival honouring the agricultural god Saturn, was held in mid-December and it seems that the newly Christianised Romans took, and adapted, Saturnalia’s timing and many traditions.
Pagans in western Europe celebrated Winter Solstice, also known as Yule, to celebrate the rebirth of the sun after the darkest days of the year. From this ancient festival (still celebrated) come the traditions of Yule logs and bringing greenery into our homes for Christmas. The idea of decorated Christmas trees (rather than a burning yule log) was brought into the UK by Queen Victoria’s German husband, Albert, prince of SaxeCoburg and Gotha. This made me think of other winter festivals that are celebrated in multicultural Britain today.
Families with East Asian roots may come together for the Dongzhi Festival to celebrate the end of the longest night by eating rice cakes and special colourful dumplings.
The Iranian festival of Yalda is also viewed traditionally as the victory of light over dark, and the birthday of the sun god Mithra. Families celebrate together and eat nuts and pomegranates and some stay awake all night long to welcome the morning sun.
The Jewish festival of Hannukah is celebrated over eight December days. Each night of Hanukkah, a candle is lit in a special menorah, or candelabra, called a ‘hanukkiyah’. Hannukah commemorates an ancient time when Jews had overcome their oppressors and were able to rededicate the Second Temple to God.
In the new year, Lohri and N’cwala are celebrated.
Lohri is celebrated by Punjabi Sikhs and Hindus. Celebrated with fire, song and dance, it marks the end of winter and welcomes the return of the sun. Punjabi folklore states that the flames of the bonfire lit on the day of Lohri carry the messages and prayers of the people to the Sun God to bring warmth to the planet to help crops grow. In exchange, the Sun God blesses the land and ends the days of gloom and cold.
Although it’s summer in December in Zambia, if you are of Zambian heritage in Britain, you will be celebrating N’cwala at that this time of the year. N’cwala is a Zambian harvest festival based on the Ngoni tradition of offering the Paramount Ngoni chief the first produce of the year and involves a dancing competition. Women, clapping and singing songs of encouragement for their brave and fierce warriors, form a circle around the dancing men. These days, the festival has become more widely celebrated with all from the community getting involved in singing and dancing.