Ancient New Year observations
In ancient Rome, the Saturnalia began as a celebration of the feasts of the divine couple Saturn, god of agriculture, on December 17, and Ops, goddess of plenty, on December 19. Eventually the festival was extended from December 17 through December 23. It was a time to implore divine protection of winter crops, a time to celebrate the New Year.
In China during the Shang Dynasty (roughly 1500–1040 BCE), according to Richard Heinberg’s Celebrate the Solstice, the emperor “symbolically renewed the world order” at the solstices. For three days prior to the Winter Solstice, he underwent ritual purification by abstaining from certain foods, sexual activity, and even music. Just before Solstice dawn, the emperor processed to the Round Mound in Beijing’s Temple of Heaven, accompanied by royalty, officials, musicians, and dancers. There he knelt in the center of a series of concentric stone circles (the center of the universe) and prayed facing north. Then he lit a fire, read an account of the previous year, and “made ceremonial sacrifices to heaven . . . of incense, jade, and silk,” as well as “a portion of . . . human flesh from a sacrificial victim.”
Among the ancient Incas, too, the emperor played a key role in the Winter Solstice ritual. The Incas enacted the drama of their sun god Inti at the festival of Inti Raymi. E. C. Krupp, in Echoes of the Ancient Skies, describes the first part of this day’s ritual. Before sunrise on the Winter Solstice (June in the Southern Hemisphere), the emperor and other high-ranking leaders went to a ceremonial plaza in Cuzco, where they removed their shoes out of respect for the sun. When the sun appeared, they crouched “and blew respectful kisses to the glowing golden disk.” The emperor then lifted two golden cups of a sacred drink brewed from fermented corn. One was offered to the sun (poured into a basin and then onto the ground), and the other was shared with the participants.
Not all New Year rituals take place at Winter Solstice. Some ancient civilizations, including the Mesopotamians, Sumerians, Babylonians, and oldest Romans, celebrated the New Year at the Spring Equinox, when the earth itself seems to be born anew.
In The Myth of the Eternal Return: Cosmos and History, for example, Mircea Eliade describes the ceremonial for the Babylonian New Year, celebrated at the Equinox 4,000 years ago. At the end of this twelve-day event, the king, representing the deity, restored the world order. But first there had to be a regression to the chaos that preceded creation: The social order was overturned, a mock king was crowned, and the real king dethroned. (This prepared the way for “a new and regenerated human species,” Eliade explains.) Then the creation story was read and the victory of the god Marduk over the forces of chaos enacted. After the community fasted and the king endured a ritual humiliation, the “festival of fates” was celebrated: Omens for each of the twelve coming months were decided (the equivalent of creating the coming year). Then the king, restored to his rightful position and signaling the return of order—or rather, the regeneration of a new order—engaged in a ritual mating with a slave or prostitute in the service of the temple. This represented the sacred marriage of Marduk and his consort Sarpanit and was believed to ensure the fertility of the land.
For Eliade, the Babylonian New Year ritual is an example of “an attempt to restore—if only momentarily—mythical and primordial time, ‘pure’ time, the time of the ‘instant’ of Creation.” He continues:
Every New Year is a resumption of time from the beginning, that is, a repetition of the cosmogony. . . . At the end of the year and in the expectation of the New Year there is a repetition of the mythical moment of the passage from chaos to cosmos.
Whether enacted at the beginning of spring or winter, a theme common to these ancient New Year rituals is renewal of the earth and its people, brought about through the formal acknowledgment of the passing of the old order and the establishment of the new order.
Contemporary celebrations around the world
In many Winter Solstice/New Year rituals, this renewal is accomplished through purification—by fire, water, or noise. Contemporary celebrations, while diverse in their particulars, reveal a common enthusiasm for welcoming the return of the light.
Lighting bonfires to help assure the victory of light over darkness, Iranians celebrate Shabe-Yalda, the birthday of the sun, which had its origins in Zoroastrianism, the state religion that preceded Islam.
The Kalash people of Pakistan also light bonfires and conduct ritual purifications at their feast of Chaumos to honor the god Dezau.
The Tibetan Feast of Dosmoche, which celebrates the dying year, features an elaborately decorated magical pole, which is torn down at the end of the five-day festival.
The Chinese Dong Zhi festival marks the turning point from the darkness and cold of yin to the light and warmth of yang—a time for “doing the winter” (Ju Dong) by being optimistic, wearing new clothes, giving gifts, and eating extravagant meat dishes.
At their New Year festival Shogatsu, the Japanese decorate the entrances to their homes to welcome the year-god Toshigami-sama. In shrines and temples, big bells are rung to drive away evil thoughts. Through o-harai, the Shinto Great Purification rite performed on December 31, believers are cleansed of all pollution and prepared for relationships with their kami, or divine spirits.
In Book of the Hopi, Frank Waters describes a Hopi Winter Solstice ritual, Soyal, which begins with the blessing and purification of sacred water, corn, and altars, and proceeds with recitations and dances. The Hawk Maiden, symbolic mother of the people, offers seeds, symbolizing the yet-to-be-born, and a dancer, impersonating Mui’ingwa, the god of germination, spins the sun shield in a gesture intended to reverse the sun’s movement in the sky and thus begin a new year.
Although Hindus use a lunar calendar, many Indians celebrate the solstices. A popular custom in northern India is the ceremonial clanging of bells to drive out evil spirits. On Makara Sankramana, Hindus welcome the returning sun and see it as the opportunity to replace the darkness of falsehood with the illumination of wisdom and the coldness of human selfishness with the warmth of generosity.
Wiccans—following in the traditions of the ancient Celts who marked the birth of their sun god Bel with games and revelries—celebrate Winter Solstice as one of their eight major sabbats, or seasonal feasts.
Jews around the world observe the Festival of Lights, Hanukkah, which celebrates the cause of religious freedom championed by the Maccabees, who recaptured Jerusalem in 164 BCE and rededicated the temple that had been taken over by Hellenistic pagans. Commemorating a miraculous sustaining of light from lamps whose oil never ran out, Hanukkah is a moveable feast determined by both lunar and solar events. It begins on the twenty-fifth day of the Hebrew month of Kislev, three days before the new moon closest to the Winter Solstice, thus occurring at the darkest time of the year. Arthur Waskow suggests in Seasons of Our Joy that in choosing this time, the Jews were capturing a pagan solstice festival that had won wide support among partially Hellenized Jews, in order to make it a day of God’s victory over paganism. Even the lighting of candles for Hanukkah fits the context of the surrounding torchlight honors for the sun.
A Midrashic tradition suggests an even older origin of Winter Solstice/New Year feasting: When Adam experiences the first darkening of the earth as the days grow shorter and shorter, he fears that he has done something wrong and will soon be without light altogether as a result. So he prays and fasts for eight days. But when the sun starts to return and the days lengthen, he understands that this is the way of nature. He celebrates his relief by feasting for eight days. So it seems that from Adam on, humans have had the good sense to know that one day is not enough time to celebrate a major feast.
Thus we have the eight days of Saturnalia, the eight days of Hanukkah, the twelve days of Christmas, etc. During Saturnalia the army rested, commerce and schooling were suspended, criminal executions were stayed. It was a time to make merry and enjoy the company of family and friends. People decorated their homes with greenery, kept lamps burning against the evil spirits of darkness, visited neighbors with gifts to celebrate the New Year. Some donned masks and hats and danced through the streets, a tradition we still know as mumming. Slaves were allowed to speak freely and were served by their masters at table. Good will prevailed. Waverly Fitzgerald identifies several such extended commemorations on her “School of the Seasons” website: Babylonians viewed the twelve days between the Winter Solstice and the New Year as the time of struggle between chaos and order. Like the Romans, the Hindus, Chinese, and Celts all saw this period as a time for reversing the order of things and relaxing social rules, a practice that ultimately had the effect of strengthening the established order. In medieval England, all work was suspended during the twelve days of Christmas. The ancient Greeks attributed the halcyon days—the two weeks of fine weather that bracket the Winter Solstice—to the magical powers of the kingfisher, who calms the sea so she can hatch her young.
Clearly this is a time for giving birth—to offspring, to ideas, to resolutions. It is a magical time, a “time out” when normal activities and rules are suspended, a time for turning away from the hubbub of daily life, a time for reassessing our goals and values, a time for determining how our lives might be better and how we might help to make the lives of others better. Our own tradition of New Year’s resolutions reveals the hope we harbor for the possibility of new life—a new way of living that is healthier, more meaningful, more creative, and more generous.
Adapted with permission from In Nature’s Honor: Myths and Rituals Celebrating the Earth by Patricia Montley (Skinner House, 2005).
- In Nature’s Honor: Myths and Rituals Celebrating the Earth. By Patricia Montley. Skinner House, 2005. (UUA Bookstore)
- Cosmos and History: The Myth of the Eternal Return. By Mircea Eliade. Trans. by Williard R. Trask. Princeton, 2005. (Amazon.com)
- School of the Seasons. Waverly Fitzgerald’s website. (schooloftheseasons.com)
- Celebrate the Solstice: Honoring the Earth’s Seasonal Rhythms through Festival and Ceremony. By Richard Heinberg. Quest Books, 1993. (Amazon.com)
- Echoes of the Ancient Skies: The Astronomy of Lost Civilizations. By E.C. Krupp. Doubleday, 1977. (Amazon.com)
- Book of the Hopi. By Frank Waters. Penguin, 1977. (Amazon.com)
- Seasons of Our Joy: A Modern Guide to the Jewish Holidays. By Arthur Waskow. Beacon Press, 1982. (Amazon.com)