As the festive season gets in to full swing and we all start thinking about our plans for the big day, we decided to look back at some ancient festive traditions – all of which we are all still familiar with to this very day. Ancient Rome, Old Nordic, Byzantium and Medieval Europe each offer an interesting glimpse into the past and how these traditions have shaped the present.
Throughout the world, homes and streets blaze with lights during the festive season. And while the source of this light may be electric now, the association between light and Christmas is nothing new. The days leading onto the Winter Solstice have been celebrated in cultures all over the world for thousands of years. In Ancient Rome, Saturnalia was a festival in honour of Saturn, father of Jupiter and the Harvest god of peace and plenty, and the Romans worshipped him at the time of Winter Solstice with a day of rest and celebration.
The practice of gift-giving and celebrating in December goes across cultures and centuries, but the story of Santa Claus takes us as far as Asia Minor. Santa Claus, it is believed, was born sometime around 280 AD. He didn’t spend his formative years in Lapland, but in the Classical city of Patara in Asia Minor, present day Turkey. He was of course Saint Nicholas and Patara was soon to be a Byzantine metropolis at the mouth of the Xanthos River in Lycia.
In addition to being the patron saints of children, St Nicholas is also known as the protector of sailors and seamen – in Greece, ships carry an icon of St. Nicholas, as he is regarded the Master of wind and tempest. You would also find his icon on the Bridge of Aegean Odyssey, thanks to our Captain!
Did you know that carol-singing was introduced with the first nativity plays? In 1223, St. Francis of Assisi created the first “crèche,” or life-sized Nativity scene, in Italy. There, he and others are believed to have sung some of the first carols. In part, these songs in the vernacular were intended as preaching aids, and went well beyond the Nativity. The carol spread throughout Italy, Spain, France, England, and Germany through the 14th century, largely with the help of troubadours and wandering minstrels.
The word for Christmas in the Scandinavian languages: jul in Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish, jól in Icelandic and joulu in Finnish all correspond with the word Yule, an archaic term originally applied to a heathen festival lasting twelve days around the Winter Solstice. Large logs were set on fire to honour the god of thunder, Thor, and everyone would feast until the logs burned out. The julbock, the straw goat that adorns many homes in Scandinavia during the holidays is today represented by a straw goat figurine, traditionally made from the last grain of the harvest, bound in red ribbons and kept as a token of hope for the New Year.
Voyages to Antiquity staff and the crew on board Aegean Odyssey wish you a very merry Christmas and a happy New Year. Watch our Christmas video and look ahead to an exciting 2017 >