Green Wizardries, The Gift of Winter Holidays, by Maxine Rogers
I love the month of December because it contains some of my favourite holidays. I know the Christians have one of their most important holidays in December where they celebrate the birth of their God. I am all for that as I believe in religious freedom. As a Druid, I feel free to celebrate other holidays and I leave Christmas to the Christians.
One of the celebrations I want to tell you about is my all-time favourite holiday: Saturnalia. This is a Roman holiday and it is devoted to the God, Saturn. It was Saturn who taught humans the arts of farming and presided over a Golden Age of equality in ancient Italy.
Saturnalia was also a celebration of returning light and the traditional present was candles. So it was a fun and inexpensive holiday but of course some people went wild and spent too much money on presents.
Saturnalia may not be familiar to a lot of you but it was enthusiastically celebrated in my neighbourhood until Covid 19 put a stop to indoor gatherings. We decorated the living room with candles and turned off the electric lights. Our neighbours would come over on the evening of December 17, which is the first day of Saturnalia, and each guest would be greeted with shouts of Io Saturnalia! This is pronounced Ee-oh Saturnalia. When all the guests had arrived, I would pronounce the words, “Today, all men are free and all men are equal.” Men in this instance simply means people.
Saturnalia was a celebration of equality that started in the city of Rome itself and then spread out over the Empire. It typically lasted from 17 to 21 or even 23 December. All the slaves should have had those days off but in practice, only the religious households celebrated the festival properly. The slaves would also be given presents of money to buy candy, wine, gamble or whatever they wanted. The master, the Dominus of the house and the Domina, the mistress, would put on a festival dinner for the slaves and wait on them at the table.
Lacking slaves in our household, we put on a big, many-course meal for our eager neighbours. Every formal Roman meal began with eggs and ended with fruit. They had a saying, “From eggs to apples,” which meant to do something properly. So, we began by serving a tray of devilled eggs. We also served spiced and honeyed wine called Conditum Paradoxum, or Surprise Wine.
The Romans loved honey and so do I. So, here is the recipe for Conditum Paradoxum. 1 bottle white wine or red if that is what you have. 1 cup honey, 1 date, 1 Tsp nutmeg (There is a little controversy here because the word is translated as pepper but they also put this on honey flan so I think it really refers to nutmeg. Try both and see which one you like best.) 1/2 Tsp fennel seed, 2 bay leaves and a pinch of saffron. To the honey add 75 ml of the wine and heat it in a pan until the honey melts. Lower the heat and add the rest of the wine and the spices. The Romans served this wine chilled but you can serve it as hot-mulled wine if you like.
After the eggs, come a variety of little dishes served one at a time. We like to serve all the things we make on the farm so sheep milk cheeses, pickles, pate, home-made bread, pastries and Roman cheesecake made from sheep-milk ricotta, honey and eggs topped by some sort of fruit sauce.
The feast should end with some fruit but everyone used to bring cakes and desserts so we usually had as many sweet dishes as savory and the men would groan as each new sweet was served but then they would throw themselves into the feast with the sort of true courage the Romans would have approved of.
The evening was delightful because it was all about conversation and making merry with people we cared about. It was also a good time to lasso the neighbours before they were all too busy with Christmas preparations.
The next holiday we love to celebrate is the Winter Solstice which, in case you didn’t know, occurs on December 21. That is the shortest day and the longest night. After that, each day becomes a little bit longer until the birds return from the south, bearing summer under their wings.
On the night of December 21, somewhere in the forest of the world, midsummer is born as a tiny, frozen jewel and is guarded by the Lord Cernunos, the Stag God. Each day, the glittering midsummer grows a little larger and casts its light and warmth a little farther until it waxes full mighty and the world become warm and full of colour and life again. So an event to celebrate indeed!
The Winter Solstice is celebrated by a variety of religions but even rational materialists can celebrate this holiday as it is an astronomical event. As a Druid, I perform a Grove Opening and welcome the turning of the year wheel. Religious duties done, I used to have a small dinner party for some friends because it is not a feast unless you have guests and share your happiness. Is it even legal now to have a supper party?
When everyone is assembled, all the lights go off and we sit in silence and the dark for a couple of minutes. Then, one candle is lit, I would say a few words about the Winter Solstice and then we would each light a candle, think about the year to come and get slightly drunk and very full.
Small presents can be exchanged at this festival but it is a nature festival so we give presents from our farm. Dried fruit and home-made sweets being the usual products. No one feels less happy for not having to shop for presents. No one needs more plastic junk. No one has money to spare for presents that will be a disappointment in any case.
The last holiday we celebrate in December is the festival of Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun. This festival takes place on December 25 and that and Saturnalia set the tone for the new festival of Christmas. Indeed, Saturnalia was celebrated until the fifth century AD much to the annoyance of the Christian clerics.
On the morning of the 25th, my husband brings a tray of coffee into the bedroom first thing in the morning and with it, a couple of outsized stockings filled with candy, fruit, nuts and tiny presents. He was raised a Protestant and is still tapering off. This too is a fun festival and by the time all three festivals have come and gone, I feel sure we have welcomed in the new year properly and we are not broke!