Hundreds of years before Christ several other festivals were held in different parts of the world. These celebrations seemed to all occur at some point during the winter solstice, the time at which the earth makes its shortest journey around the sun. Ancient people worshiped the sun and those in the northern hemisphere feared that the sun god had forsaken them as the days grew shorter. They soon felt there would be no light or life left on earth if the god didn’t relent and allow the days and light to return and , of course it did. Around December 22nd we have our shortest days and it was at this time that the people of northern Europe would build great fires and kindle lights to encourage the sun god to re-light his lamp. There was much feasting and rejoicing as the days grew longer for now spring would come and life would flourish.
It was about the same time that the Romans paid homage to Saturn, the god of agriculture, with their Saturnalia festival. This festival was celebrated for a week to mark a legendary Golden Age when Saturn ruled the world. Men and women with garlands on their heads and carrying lighted candles processed through the streets giving candles and green wreaths as presents. Slaves and masters changed roles and class distinctions were forgotten. The poor feasted as equals and took part in all the frivolity, dancing and games.
In the Jewish month of Kislev, which falls in December, the Feast of the Dedication (Hanukkah) celebrated the rededication of Solomon’s temple after it had been polluted by Antiochus and recovered by the valor of the Maccabees. This festival is sometimes called the Feast of Lights and it is usual to burn great quantities of lamps and candles as emblems of the Light of Truth, rekindled after it had been obscured by heathens. Still celebrated, it marks an early victory in the Jews’ struggle to worship one God in their own way.
The Persians lighted fires at the winter solstice in praise of Mithra, god of light.
The northern barbarians – Britons and Saxons and Norse men – held November feasts called ‘Jiuleis’ or ‘Giuli’, from which the Scandinavian ‘Jul’ and our ‘Yule” may come. Cattle were slaughtered when the grasses died out and the carcasses roasted. The yule log, which represented fire, warmth and light against the cold and darkness of winter, was carefully prepared and lit. Its wood was thought to bring luck to each household. In the Heimskringla, we read that King Hakon the Good “made a law that the festival of Yule should begin at the same time as Christian people held it; and that every man, under penalty, should brew a measure of malt into ale, and therewith keep the Yule holy as long as it lasted”. This pagan festival was kept in a pagan way, with gaiety and cheer. It was not a single feast day, but a whole midwinter festival, which may not have been held in all places at the same time. We do know it was tied to Christmas in Germany as early as the ninth century and in Norway about the middle of the tenth century.
December 25th was chosen by the Emperor Aurelian in AD 274 as Dies Naralis Invicti Solis, Birthday of the Unconquered Sun. It was the main festival of the Phrygian god Attis and of Mithras, whose worship was brought to Britain and other countries by the Roman army.
The Egyptians held a winter festival that honored Isis, mother of the sun god Horus.
However these festivals and celebrations were carried out, they hailed the victory of light and life over darkness.