AceHistoryDesk – That’s because Hanukkah commemorates the triumphant rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem after it was desecrated on the orders of a king of the Seleucid Empire, who cracked down on Jewish practices in the second century BC. A Jewish rebellion ensued, and – after the temple was reclaimed – they celebrated by burning an oil lamp for eight days. This was a miracle, as there was only enough oil to last one day.
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Celebrated on varying dates every November and/or December, Hannukah is grounded in verifiable historical fact, yet some have drawn comparisons between this ‘Festival of Lights’ (the lights harkening back to the miracle of the lamp) and pagan celebrations involving the lighting of candles in the depths of winter.
A more obviously solstice-inspired soiree is the Iranian Shab-e Yalda festival, which is marked every December. It calls for happy gatherings of family and friends, the reading of classic Persian poetry, the singing of songs and the eating and drinking of delicious things – especially certain fruit such as watermelons and pomegranates. Over in China, meanwhile, there’s the Dongzhi festival of December, which again brings families together for some serious celebrating time, with traditional foods including balls of glutinous rice served in savoury and sweet broths, and traditional dumplings.
It all just goes to show that the celebrations of even the most disparate societies, and of cultures that may seem opposed in so many ways, actually share the same human concerns, passions and superstitions. Whether you’re tucking into rice balls in China, a watermelon in Iran or a slightly overcooked turkey breast in Blighty (should have shoved more butter under the skin, shouldn’t you?), the roots of it all go back to the common consciousness of our distant ancestors. We’ll raise a sherry to that.
6 Ancient Roman festivals in December (that aren’t Saturnalia)
Written by Rachel Littlewood
December in Ancient Rome immediately conjures up images of Saturnalia’s week-long romp, held from 17th-23rd. While celebrations of the god Saturn were incredibly important and enjoyed by all Roman citizens, it wasn’t the only party of the season worth attending.
As the 10th month in the Ancient Roman calendar, December marked the end of the agricultural year and the beginning of winter. This meant that there were harvests to celebrate, darkness to ward off, a host of deities and potentially a wealthy prostitute to pay homage to.
Get those Vestal Virgins on speed dial and let’s look at the festive season ala Ancient Rome.
1. Bona Dia
First up we have the celebration of Bona Dia, ‘The Good Goddess’, on 3rd December. But did she throw a good party? Well, the jury’s out on that, because what they did throw was an incredibly exclusive after-party. So much so that little of what went on was ever recorded.
A goddess of healing and the protection of the state and people of Rome, she was celebrated at her Aventine temple by all of Roman society. At night, an all-female entourage, led by the Vestal Virgins, held the central ritual at the Chief Magistrate’s house. The house was decorated with blooming plants and agricultural symbols. It was a rare occasion that women were granted the use of strong wine and blood sacrifice, and any men catching a glimpse risked being blinded as punishment.
2. The Consualia
Consus was the Roman god of the granary and such an important figure that he was celebrated twice every year. Once in August to mark the beginning of harvest, and then again on 15th December to ensure the precious grain stores received his protection. His altar was positioned underground beneath the Circus Maximus and uncovered only for his feast days.
Need to keep some grain, safe to make your bread, who you gonna call? Vestal Virgins! Yes, these ladies were in high demand and this time were joined by the Flamen Qurinalis to offer up the first fruits of harvest as a feast for Consus. Once confident their granaries would be protected through winter, the shrine was sealed and horse races were held in the stadium above, including one where the chariots were comically pulled by mules.
3. The Opalia
Ops (Opia) was the goddess of abundance and the reserved harvest. Unfortunately, being held on the 19th, the Opalia clashed with the third day of Saturnalia causing a degree of overshadowing. In some accounts, Op is incorrectly reduced to merely Saturn’s wife.
Fortunately, the Opiconsivia held on 25th August was also dedicated to Ops ensuring the fertile earth was honoured before and after the harvest. Ops’ ancient shrine was VIP access only, positioned in the Regia, the office of the Pontifex Maximus with only he and, you guessed it, the Vestal Virgins allowed to enter.
4. The Angeronalia
Also known as Divalia, this feast celebrated the Winter Solstice around 21st December and honoured the Goddess Angerona. Goddess of secrecy and protector of Rome, Angerona’s temple was near Porta Romanula, one of the inner gates to the city on the Northern side of Palatine Hill.
While the Vestal Virgins were off polishing their virginity, Angerona’s priests and pontiffs would gather to offer sacrifices to guarantee the cold short days would be over quickly. These would be laid at Angerona’s bound and gagged statue, her finger pressed against her sealed lips in an eternal command for silence.
5. The Larentalia
The Larentalia took place on 23rd December and is a festival of two Larentias. Some say it honoured the funeral rites of Acca Larentia the ‘Great Nations Nurse’. She acted as a wet nurse to Romulus and Remus, the mythical founders of Rome, after her husband discovered them suckling from a she-wolf, or lupa, as babies.
Others suggest the Larentia in question is a 7th century BCE sex workerwho, after being won by Hercules in a game of dice, inherited a considerable fortune, leaving her wealth to the city of Rome on the condition that it honoured her annually. There are also suggestions that both are the same woman, which isn’t the craziest thing in Roman mythology, as lupa was a colloquial term for prostitute. Either way, it became a festival to honour dead parents with citizens leaving offerings for their ancestors.
6. Natalis Sol Invicti
The 25th December was the birthday of not one, but two Roman sun gods. Its name means ‘Birthday of the Invincible Sun’ and celebrated the birth of Sol Invictus who was portrayed riding a quadriga, a racing chariot pulled by four horses. Belief in Sol Invictus stems back to Persia but it found its home in Rome being introduced as its official deity by Emperor Aurelian in 274 CE.
If those celebrations aren’t cliquey enough, Mithraism was immensely popular from the 1st- 4th century CE with the sun god Mithra was also born on 25th December. While both celebrations revolved around feasting, Mithraism had a complex male hierarchy requiring a series of initiations. The seventh and highest title attainable was Pater (Father).
With its popularity within the Imperial Roman Army, Mithraism spread across Europe and Mithraism was an early rival to Christianity. Despite having plenty in common, Mithra’s worshippers were suppressed and eliminated by Christianity during the 4th century.