E&M Authors Sindre Langmoen and Clémentine Dècle-Classen explore and reflect on European winter celebrations and their evolution through time, and how to find new meaning in the holiday.
As the holiday season approaches and we find ourselves evading mall Santas, Starbucks’ Chestnut Praline Lattes and ever inescapable Michael Bublé soundscapes as we trudge through shops for last minute Christmas presents, some of us may stop in irritation as we wonder, “How did we get here?”.
Some may believe Christmas persists solely as a commercialised, capitalistic, consumer holiday, and that all inherent meaning and magic has been replaced by a materialistic ideology. But while the celebration has certainly been permeated by the aggressive monopoly of Coca-Cola’s Santa Claus, winter rituals are celebrated by Christians, other believers and the irreligious alike as a testament to one’s loved ones, of good and plentiful food, and of light in the darkness, with a long lineage of European celebrations and legacies.
A Small History of Christmas
During Christ’s lifetime the Romans already celebrated the holiday of Saturnalia, a time when slaves were largely given the right to treat their masters as equals, sit at their tables and talk back at them, in memory of a more egalitarian past. This ritual, largely superficial in its practice, remained a symbolic challenge to the daily societal norms, pointed at a more harmonious possibility of life, and served to bind the community: public banquets were held, presents were exchanged, and for the time of the celebration, people were equal.
Further north, Pre-Christian Germanic Yule customs began on the Winter Solstice and lasted for 12 days up to 1st of January, primarily marking the end of the long, dark nights, and the arrival of light. Celebrations of light were abundant, family and friends gathered, animals were slaughtered and feasts were held.
During the 10th Century, Norwegian King Haakon Haraldsson, a Christian, first put into law that Yule and Christmas should be celebrated at the same time, after which the latter quickly came to prevail over pagan traditions, as Northern Europe came to be Christianised. The traditions of feasting, gift-giving, and celebration were retained, but the focus shifted from celebrating one’s community and the arrival of light, to the birth of Jesus Christ — which became the main reason for Christmas celebration before the secularisation and commercialisation of the holiday.
In the nineteenth century, certain old traditions were revived in Western Europe, such as gift-giving, which had been largely discouraged by Christian authorities. There was a conscious movement to make the holiday more family-friendly. With the advent of consumerism, presents became a central element of the celebration once again, though solidarity with the poor through public feasts and gifts of food and clothing had been a tradition from the times of the Romans through the middle ages.
While the consumerist elements seem to have contaminated the whole world during the Winter Holidays, there remain many European traditions that are less materialistic in tone, and new ones have evolved that distance themselves both from consumerism and religion.
From writing poetry on Sinterklaas to community winter solstice celebrations, elements from rituals all over Europe provide alternative ways to celebrate one another and the passing of time, beyond the sometimes superficial aspect of overconsumption and gift-giving.
Here are a few examples:
With celebrations beginning mid-November every year, on 6th December, the Dutch celebrate Sinterklaas (or Saint Nicholas) or Saint Nicholas. Traditionally more important than Christmas, this tradition is especially known for its (valid) controversial zwarte piet’s representation associated with a racist and colonial legacy.
However, Sinterklaas’ celebration itself also involves children go on a treasure hunt to find their gifts, while grown-ups celebrate around dinner, pepernoten, and exchange poems — usually a roast at their subject — accompanied by a small gift. Others may also decide to write in a thoughtful and literary manner. While this can become awkward in certain cases, exchanging poems can be seen as an exercise to think (a little more) deeply about the other than through mere gift-giving.
In Sweden, lights are celebrated on December 13, which used to mark the winter solstice prior to calendar reforms. The legend says Lucia of Syracuse, an early-fourth-century virgin martyr, would have brought food and helped the Christians hidden in the Roman Catacombs, lighting the way with a candle on her head to leave her hands free and carry as much food as possible. This celebration occurs in Scandinavia and Italy, and differs slightly across countries. In Nordic countries, the December 13th ceremony gathers girls singing, holding a candle, with one of them elected to represent Lucia with a crown of candles on her head, carrying cookies and saffron buns to symbolise the arrival of the Light of Christ into the world’s darkness.
Not-so-fun fact: During this year’s Sankta Lucia celebration, Swedish far right local politician Mattias Erikson reportedly stopped a school’s St. Lucia parade because the person representing Lucia identifies as non-binary.
Denmark Solstice Celebrations
In Denmark, local celebrations of winter solstice on the 21st of December have increased significantly in the past decades and have become an important non-religious ritual in an increasingly secular country. In more urban places such as Copenhagen, the solstice is celebrated through performances of illumination through art installations. Most commonly, however, in more rural areas, the celebrations feature a ritual procession through the local town or village towards a form of water, arriving at a large bonfire, where songs are sung by participants.
The village of Snogebæk has been celebrating the winter solstice since 2009. An organiser elaborated on the intention of the ritual: “Eastern Bornholm is the first place where the sun turns, you know, and in addition it’s a really cosy and nice way to meet, in such a small place like this where you live close to nature. Christmas is so hectic, but around the bonfire on the 21st of December people become completely silent and calm for a little while.” The ritual in Snogebæk also includes poetry recalling the village history, with a new poem added every year, thereby underlining the solstice as a celebration of their community, in addition to an evening of peace during an otherwise hectic month.
The Winter solstice rituals redirect certain Christmas values, first by widening their scope to include not only the family, but the broader community, and secondly by bringing the celebration outside, to celebrate the natural environment including the sea, the sky, the fire and the (lack) of sun. While it borrows from the Old Norse tradition, it is not a reenactment of the VIking past, but an acknowledgment of this past by inventing a new tradition out of the old material, bringing it new meaning.
The origins of the Scandinavian tradition and symbol of the Yule goat, today mostly represented by a decorative straw figure of a goat, is unclear, but distinctly pre-Christian. Some believe that it ties back to the god Thor, who rode in a flying chariot pulled by two goats. Surviving into the Christian era, the Yule goat has seen many variations and incorporations into various traditions, sometimes functioning as the representation of the Devil controlled by a person dressed up as St. Nicolas, or, during the 19th Century, becoming a man-sized present-bringing goat. In Finland, the figure bringing presents for Christmas is still called the Yule goat (Joulupukki) till this day.
Meanwhile, in the Swedish town of Gävle, the traditions of celebrating light and the figure of the Yule Goat have evolved and merged into a new, somewhat controversial practice. Since 1966, a giant version of the Yule Goat has been erected each year at a central square in the city, and every year since community members have sought to destroy it, most commonly with fire. Till this day, the majority of Gävle goats have met their demise despite efforts to protect it and to prosecute the perpetrators. The yearly battle between municipal authority and the would-be arsonists has become a much-anticipated phenomenon, and at this point belongs to tradition.
Winter Bear Dance
Departing from Northern Europe, on New Year’s Eve in Eastern Romania, people dressed up as bears perform the traditional Dance of the Bear. This ritual reenacts the bear’s cyclical death/hibernation and resurrection, symbolising renewal and the start of a new year. The tradition was inherited from the pre-Roman Dacian inhabitants of the region for whom the bear was a sacred animal; it was repressed both by the Church through mediaeval times as well as during the communist dictatorship. In the past, real bears would be brought in to perform for the community, the tradition evolved to feature people wearing bear skins.
Today however, the local tradition is kept alive by new generations of Bear-dancers, increasingly with the participation of women and children. However, it is undergoing changes: while it was traditionally a ritual performed by the local Roma population, these have now been priced out of the performance, as bear pelts have become prohibitively expensive. Now, local Romanians have taken over the tradition and it has become increasingly commercialised, with groups of dancers making prearranged stops at restaurants, certain homes or in the cities, where they can earn good money on tips.
Rediscovering Europe’s Winter Celebrations beyond Materialism
Christmas, Yule, or New Year’s are all traditions that have taken hold and that have evolved in accordance with the culture of those celebrating. The characters of the narrative and the particular rituals that are enacted have changed in big or small ways. However, permanent features remain: a celebration of one’s community, large or small. A celebration of the cycles of the earth, of light and warmth in the darkness, and a moment to detach from the everyday struggles and hierarchies of society. Such celebrations and rituals hold great meaning, beyond any particular faith and religious belief.
From roast poetry for Sinterklaas to dances, some of the winter celebrations across Europe highlighted here — with the exception of the Yule goat — share something beyond the celebration of winter solstice: imagination and creativity as a way to interact with a community. Nowadays’ Christmas celebration has also retained some of these traits: Christmas choirs, decorative lights, handcrafting Christmas decorations at school, baking, or cooking sometimes complex meals we would not cook on a regular basis.
This time of the year has always been related to some kind of abundance and comfort, for instance in food, but not to such an unnecessarily excessive extent as we notice today. But rather than lamenting the fact that the holidays have changed over time and how the magic has disappeared, we should encourage its evolution and give new meaning to the rituals and celebrations of the past. A celebration of the passing of time, of the opportunity to be creative with our community and of warmth remains one with great power which should be protected from superficiality and materialism, which overshadow its meaningful elements.