We have axial tilt to thank for an upcoming celebration, one that humans have observed for thousands of years. Because our Earth doesn’t stand upright in its orbit – instead it tilts on its axis by 23-and-a-half degrees – as the planet orbits the sun, the Northern and Southern Hemispheres trade places in leaning toward or away from the sun. When it’s our turn to lean away, winter ensues. Friday, December 21, is the apex of our tilt away from the light, when days are shortest and cold settles in.
Celebrations of the winter solstice around the world capture our imaginations, because after this the days will start to warm, and the garden will awaken in spring. But that’s a few months away, so we deck the halls and sing old songs, following traditions spanning back centuries and millennia to encourage the sun to return. The solstice gives us cause to festoon our homes with greenery, mistletoe, oranges, berries and holly. Here in Colorado that sun doesn’t leave often, so this is your friendly reminder to winter water your trees, woody plants and perennials.
Despite our overabundance of sunshine, we dive into traditions today that are rooted in ancient celebrations of the winter solstice, especially Saturnalia. A festival to honor the god of agriculture, Saturn, the Saturnalia was originally celebrated in Ancient Rome for only one day, December 17.
But like our current marketing madness that stretches holiday shopping into months, Saturnalia was so popular that it soon lasted a week, despite several attempts by rulers to curtail the revelry. The basis for the festival was serious business: if the sun left the earth it was because the gods were distracted by other interests, therefore people had to entice them back. Since everyone loves a party, surely a god-sized revel would bring them back.
Gardeners understand pining for the growing season to return, so here’s how to decorate and celebrate Saturnalia in case those ancient peoples were onto something. The décor is easy, because there’s a familiar feel to it: many of the Saturnalia decorations involved greenery, such as garlands and wreaths hung inside and out of the house. Evergreen trees growing outdoors were adorned with ornaments celebrating the sun, stars and food treats such as sweet cakes or crackers.
Gild ornaments in gold to celebrate the sun, hang pine cones or holly about the house. Wax candles were a favorite gift of the Romans, who prized the burning tapers. Small clay dolls and coins were sometimes exchanged. Today we give gifts of flowering plants or those plants that are brightly colored, like poinsettias, to brighten up our homes.
Feasting and drunkenness were mainstays of the festival, but you can sip on whatever makes you happy. Make sure to designate one person as the Lord of Misrule to provide mischief each day of the week, but make sure the mischief is based in kindness and cheer, instead of cruelty.
If you really get the itch to celebrate the solstice, expand your celebrations to include soaking in a hot bath with yuzu citrus fruits, a custom in Japan that soothes the body and soul. Simply toss the fruit into the tub whole and the warmth of the water releases a soothing citrus scent.
Or eat tang yuan, rice balls that are part of the Chinese celebration of the solstice. Lighting bonfires is also a way to celebrate the solstice, but in Colorado, that’s not a great idea.
By Carol O’Meara. Colorado State University Extension, together with Boulder County Parks and Open Space, provides unbiased, research-based information about consumer and family issues, horticulture, natural resources, agriculture and 4-H youth development. For more information contact Colorado State University Extension at the Boulder County Fairgrounds, 9595 Nelson Rd., Box B, Longmont, 303.678.6238, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or visit ext.colostate.edu/boulder.