Through the Lens of History 3 – Winter Festivals of Old Europe

13 December, 2009

Tis the ideas of December and time to look through the lens:

Through the Lens of History: Using History for Better Gaming
Vision 3: Winter Festivals of Old Europe

People have always sought meaning for natural events and an opportunity to have a good time.  Festivals celebrated important events, such as Winter Solstice, and people celebrated during the festivals.  This vision looks at some of the European winter festivals from ancient history.

Part I – The History
For as long as people have known that the Winter Solstice was the shortest day of the year, it has been a focal point for winter celebrations.  The return to lengthening days has been interpreted as the triumph of the Sun, the rebirth of the world and other positive things, a sign that winter would not last forever.  The vast majority of such traditions have been lost in the mists of prehistory and we only have echoes of what they once were.

The Winter Solstice was often tied to the victory of the Sun over darkness, showing that once again the Sun’s light would return to warm the world and free it from the dark and cold of winter.  The cults of Sol Invictus (the Unconquered Sun) and Mithras both used their Solstice festivals for this purpose.  Symbols of stars, the sun and candles at this time of year may reflect these traditions.

The Winter Solstice is a time when the evil spirits are driven from the world.  We have memories of such traditions in events as the “knocking nights” in Bavaria where children dress up in masks and go from house to house reciting rhymes starting with ‘Knock’ (Klopf an in German) and making noise with bells and other things.  All of this to drive away evil spirits and in reward for their efforts the children are given candies or money by those living in the houses.

The Celts certainly celebrated the Winter Solstice as it marked the rebirth of the sun and marked ‘the shortest day’ (or ‘the darkest midnight’) and was cause for celebration, since it meant the journey toward Spring would now begin.  But we know little of the Celtic ceremonies or rituals tied to the Winter Solstice.  However, at Newgrange in County Meath, Ireland, there is an ancient tomb covered with beautiful artwork, which remains in darkness for much of the year.  But once a year, on the Winter Solstice, the tomb fills with light to reveal the beautiful artwork on the walls.  The existence of such a site certainly implies that the Irish Celts did consider this time particularly important.

Symbols of greenery and plants, evergreens, holly, oak and others, are all way to symbolize the returns of the Sun and the approach of Spring.  Thoughts and theories about which plant symbolizes what and originates from what tradition abound.  In any case, they are symbols of new life and warmer days ahead.

For the Romans, the major winter festival was Saturnalia, beginning on the 17th of December.  Saturn was the titan overthrown by Jupiter (Zeus) to become king of the gods.  Saturnalia marked the end of saving for winter and was a time of feasting and celebration and lasted for several days.  The festival began with a formal sacrifice at the temple of Saturn, guardian of the public treasury.  Followed by a festive banquet in front of the temple of Saturn at which people dress informally, wearing pilei (soft caps), where there was unrestrained feasting amongst shouts of “Io Saturnalia!”  Saturnalia lasted until the 23rd of December with the days spend in relaxation and feasting, courts and schools were closed, punishments were postponed and life was good.

Saturnalia was also a time to celebrate Saturn, the ‘lord of misrule’, slaves were served by their masters and children ran households.  It was a time for celebration with friends, public parties and revelry.  On the last day of Saturnalia gifts were given.  The gifts were such items as: Strenae, originally fruits that were suppose to confer good luck for the coming year, they later gave way to cakes and other tokens that served the same purpose.  Sigillaria, small pottery dolls, were presented in sacrifice for atonement to Saturn and in memory of the ancestors.  Cerei, candles to symbolize the light driving away the darkness were another popular gift.

A common theme of winter celebrations is special food made for the occasion, from American turkey to the British Christmas goose (as celebrated in Dickens A Christmas Carol) to special breads and sweets made just for the celebrations.  It was also a time for drink, from brandy and ale to spiced elderberry wine, possets (a drink made of hot milk curdled with ale or wine and flavored with spices) and spiked eggnog, alcohol has always been important to warm celebrants on those chill winter nights.

Part II- Breaking it apart and putting it back together

Adding such universal festivals as Winter Solstice may help to enrich the background of a game world, adding depth and texture to the world.

Festivals are always a good time to meet people and get together with old friends.  But beyond the role-playing possibilities:

•    A ‘knocking night’ group of children might encounter an evil spirit who is not afraid of their noises and songs.  A rescue would be in order.
•    A wealthy merchant seeks to impress the King with lavish gifts and hires the characters to fetch unique foods and gifts for the Winter celebration.
•    Perhaps the legends of the gods fighting back the darkness are not legends but the truth, and this year the gods need the characters’ help to defeat the darkness.  This could be as minor as protecting a shrine from desecration or as epic as fighting beside the gods, as suits the campaign.

A short vision this time.  I hope that all of you fine readers had a wonderful Winter Holiday season, whatever your faith and traditions.

Across the Web, over at Evil Machinations, Jade looks at the Chinese Harvest Moon Festival and the Homowo Festival.


  1. Great background info, thanks for posting!

  2. Short vision or not, these are awesome. Thanks for the details as creative fodder!!

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