Modern Britain has a great deal to learn from the centuries-old traditions of the winter solstice, says Professor Ronald Hutton
- Winter solstice, 22 December
Certainly, Europeans have always marked the winter solstice, and their ancient names for it - Saturnalia (Roman), Modranicht (Anglo-Saxon) and Yule (Scandinavian) - are known wherever pre-Christian cultures were recorded.
For Christians, it is best known as the Feast of the Nativity or Christmas, which has been held at midwinter ever since the fourth century and is the most intensively celebrated festival of the year, with more rites and customs than any other. All this makes it of great importance to a historian. But what relevance does an understanding of the winter solstice have for students in more general education?
The answer is firmly bound up with the phenomenon of globalisation. First, it acknowledges the current supremacy of Western - above all American - culture in the world, which has made the Christmas holiday the most commonly recognised and observed around the planet. Second, it is important to recognise that developed nations are increasingly multicultural entities. This is especially true of Britain where, more and more, we seek common needs and qualities to unite a society in which many groups either have never been Christian or have ceased to be so.
Fortunately, our own history furnishes us with four of these commonalities - all rooted in the nature of the season itself.
The first is the need to keep ourselves cheerful at the time when natural light is at its most scarce and there is a general lack of warmth, food, flowers, greenery or easy travel. So it is not surprising that feasting lies at the centre of all traditional accounts of the festival; a great meal at which family, household, court or band could fill their bellies and make merry together. The modern Christmas dinner is our expression of this in brightly lit, snugly heated homes. (The Yule log and large Christmas candles are two further representations.)
If light and warmth were defiantly reasserted, then so too was greenery, as homes and holy places were decorated with whatever survived: for a long time just holly and ivy. Then the Germans took up the custom of the Christmas tree in the 17th century and gave it to the British in the 19th. In between came the mistletoe bough - and the tradition of kissing beneath it - which brightened up the dark nights of 18th-century London.
A second enduring feature is the making of fresh plans and resolutions in preparation for the return of warmth and activity, as the winter solstice represents the traditional New Year for most Europeans.
Many customs were devoted to blessing the home: Scottish Highlanders took burning juniper around it, while in southern Scotland and northern England the first person to call after the arrival of the New Year brought good fortune. In southern Britain, people would sing to each other - and even to their beasts, fields and orchards, known as wassailing - to woo good luck. The greatest act of well-wishing, however, was to give gifts at the New Year, a custom recorded since pagan Roman times and surviving in our modern-day Christmas presents.
The third characteristic of midwinter is charity, based on the humane impulse to assist those who not could afford to make merry (and coupled with the more practical reality that the poor might slit their wealthier neighbours’ throats unless their resentments were tempered). Collecting and giving to the poor was known in variant local English terms as Thomasing, Gooding, Mumping, Hoggling or Hognelling. Able-bodied working men could earn the food and money for their household feasts by performing songs, dances or plays to please the better off - such as the Mummers’ Play, Sword Dances and, of course, carols.
The final trait of the festival was Misrule - recognising that this was a season when mud, darkness and storms threatened even the best-sheltered communities. Misrule reversed the usual order of society: in ancient Rome masters served slaves; in medieval cathedrals Boy Bishops presided; Lords of Misrule lorded it over wealthy Tudor and Stuart households; and schoolboys were allowed to “bar out” their teachers from classrooms. Today, party games, paper hats and pantomimes preserve this atmosphere, but a less hierarchical society has largely discarded the need for Misrule.
The winter solstice has provided us with a cluster of imperatives and associations that create symbols and activities to unite speakers of all the 130 languages now used in Britain. As educationalists we need to understand, and celebrate, the solstice - and share it with our student audience.
Ronald Hutton is professor of history at Bristol University and the author of 14 books, including “The Stations of the Sun: a history of the ritual year in Britain”