The Planted Row: Holiday traditions have agricultural roots

Stan Wise

by Stan Wise
Farm Forum Editor

Faithful readers of this column will know that I’m a fan of history. Perhaps it’s merely an extension of my overdeveloped sense of nostalgia, but I love learning about the ways our ancestors worked and lived.

Particularly, I like to learn about the history of our modern traditions, including our Christmas traditions. 

Several different ancient European cultures held celebrations on or about the winter solstice (Dec. 21 or Dec. 22). The solstice is the shortest day of the year, and it marks the point at which the days begin growing longer instead of shorter. 

It turns out, the astronomical significance of this transformation is not the only reason to celebrate. Historically and agriculturally speaking, the middle of winter is a really great time to throw a party. For one thing, wine and beer prepared during the year has fermented by the solstice and is ready for drinking. Also, the solstice is a good time to slaughter livestock not intended for breeding so you don’t have to feed the animals through the depth of winter when feed supplies are low. 

One of the oldest traditions of midwinter celebration is Yule. This is a Germanic and Norse holiday starting on the solstice and continuing into January to celebrate the return of the sun. Many of you, no doubt, will have heard of the Yule log, which some people burn during Christmas even today. In ancient times, it was a large log that people burned for days, and they celebrated until the log burned out. Scholars have connected this celebration to the god Odin, among other things.

In ancient Rome, the citizens celebrated Saturnalia in midwinter to honor Saturn, the Roman god of agriculture. (On the Julian calendar, which people used at the time, the winter solstice fell on Dec. 25.) During this celebration, people decorated their homes with wreaths and people gave each other gifts. In fact, wax candles were a popular gift. (Notice the Christmas connection?)

All work came to a halt. Even slaves were allowed to join in the fun, and in some cases the social order was overturned for the duration of the festivities, and slaves ruled the households. Saturnalia was a raucous holiday, and that tradition continued long after the Christians adopted it.

In early Christianity, Easter was the main holiday, and there was no celebration of the birth of Christ. However, this changed in the fourth century A.D., and Pope Julius I chose Dec. 25 as the day to celebrate the nativity. Many believe that midwinter was chosen so that Christianity could make it easier to adopt pagans into its fold during a time when it was competing with pagan religions.

Later, the raucous nature of Saturnalia could still be seen in Christmas celebrations. During the holiday in the Middle Ages, the lower classes were allowed to enter the homes of their lords and demand treats. If they didn’t get them, they might cause mischief or vandalize the homes. (This was the beginning of the wassailing or caroling tradition.) In fact, during the time Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans controlled England, Christmas was considered so scandalous that it was banned. It was also banned in the portions of America controlled by the Puritans. 

It wasn’t until the 19th century in America that Christmas came to be associated with family values and fondness for one’s fellow man. 

Today, we often hear “Jesus is the reason for the season.” But the truth is, many of the modern Christmas traditions we enjoy today predate the time of Christ. The Christmas tree can trace its origins to the ancient Norse and Germanic people who used evergreens as a symbol of the returning sun. The yule log also has northern European roots. Our gift-giving tradition, Christmas candles, and the Christmas wreath can trace their origin back to the ancient Roman holiday of Saturnalia. Even Christmas caroling can be traced back that far. 

These facts shouldn’t trouble modern Christians. Early Christianity took over pagan holidays to make it easier to convert pagans. They should feel no shame in the result now that Christianity is the most practiced religion in the world. 

To me, however, this knowledge takes the Christmas holiday beyond religion. These traditions we still follow today were started more than 2,000 years ago by people who were doing the same thing you are doing today. They were planting crops in the ground and raising livestock in order to feed their families. They set aside a time to honor the supernatural forces they deemed to have sway in their lives — the sun (or associated sun gods) or a god of agriculture — in hopes that they might have a bountiful harvest in the New Year.

And what do we thank and praise and hope for at Christmas if not supernatural blessings from a deity we worship?

That means those of us who celebrate Christmas this year, with its traditions thousands of years in the making, share a common experience with ancient people who planted a crop, birthed a calf, and hoped for the best possible futures for their families. And we, who are living now, are the result of all their hopes, wishes, and hard work.

Through the depths of time, there’s a farmer’s hand reaching for yours, sharing your best hopes for humanity.

May all your Christmas wishes come true.