How a mix of cultural traditions created the festive time of year that occurs each winter    

Evan Jewell
Evan Jewell, assistant professor of history (photo by Elle Pérez)

The holiday season is upon us! Whether celebrating a traditional Christmas, lighting a Hanukkah menorah, or invoking the spirit of the good-time party that was Roman Saturnalia, cultures have created many ways, and many reasons, to gather in winter.

Most holiday traditions have historic foundations. At Hanukkah, families recite the story of Jewish freedom fighters who, in 139 BCE, defeated Greek occupiers in Jerusalem. They also recreate how, miraculously, a tiny amount of lamp oil stayed lit for eight nights in the reclaimed Holy Temple. At Christmas, Christians tell and retell the story of Mary and Joseph traveling to Bethlehem, where the baby Jesus was born in a manger with three kings, hosts of angels, and humble shepherds welcoming his birth. While there is little historical evidence these events took place in winter, Assistant Professor of History Evan Jewell, a scholar of ancient Rome, says it is not coincidental that this time of year is powerful in its pull as a season for gatherings and renewal.

“The Romans are responsible for marking December 25 as the birth date of Jesus,” Jewell said. “This date was chosen in the period when the Romans were adopting Christianity, especially after the emperor Constantine put an end to the persecutions and declared it a legal religion—along with all other religions—with the Edict of Milan in 313 CE.  But this date was not selected randomly, and it was not selected to compete with, or replace, the Roman festival of Saturnalia. The Romans were quite flexible with various gods and holidays sitting side by side. For the Romans, Christmas was initially a quiet time of reflection, without the bells and mistletoe we see today.”

Today, we accept a mixture of Roman, Celtic, Norse, Druid, African, Saxon, and other traditions like gift giving, feasting, decking the halls, and even Santa Claus, as commonplace parts of holiday celebrations—religious and non-religious. But by virtue of the astronomical calendar, winter celebrations share commonalities that cross cultures and centuries. Something unique happens when the days are short and nights are long. In the northern hemisphere, what we celebrate, simply put, is our ongoing survival.

Jewell said the fourth and fifth centuries were an age of turmoil for the Romans. There were deep economic crises, civil war, trade route disruptions, and threats of invasion from Barbarian tribes. As the empire staggered toward collapse, celebrations like Saturnalia seemed increasingly out of touch, especially among Christians. Jewell added that the growing acceptance of Christianity, even among soldiers in the Roman army, was aided by the tolerance, pluralism, and imperialist agenda that had prompted Romans to blend and merge deities and traditions from other cultures into their own religious practices since the days of the Roman Republic, well before the advent of emperors.

According to Jewell, one reason why the small sect of Christianity likely grew and spread, like some other mystery religions of the time, was that it offered acceptance to anyone from any background at a time when the citizens of the Roman empire were feeling especially vulnerable to internal and external forces.

Reaching back much further, the geographic area that would become Western Europe also experienced precarious times, heightened by the change from hunting and gathering to the formation of agrarian societies. Neolithic farmers began to take note of the winter solstice, the moment in December when the sun reverses its axial tilt on the horizon. The winter solstice marks the gradual return of the longer, warmer days necessary for the growth of crops. An ability to plan when to sow and harvest crops strengthened the odds for survival.  

Stonehenge, among other megalithic monuments in Western Europe, is perfectly aligned to the summer and winter solstices. While no one knows for sure, this large stone circle in the southwest of England may have, in part, served as a calendar for tracking crop cycles.

While today there is less fear of crop failure or empires collapsing, we still gather during the winter season. It is not accidental that big occasions are acknowledged in this period of darkness. We celebrate the light that miraculously glowed for the Jewish people and rejoice in the birth of a baby under the Star of Bethlehem.

Even with Santa Claus on the horizon and wreaths of green signaling that spring is not too far away, the winter solstice remains a potent time to pause, reflect, and plant our own seeds of renewal.

This holiday season, make the bleak midwinter less bleak. Share a kiss under some mistletoe, raise a glass to the survival of ancient mankind, and light a candle—to banish the darkness.