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traditional holiday decorations

Almost everyone has heard of Christmas, as well as other widely celebrated holidays like Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, but what about Saturnalia, Yule, or Yalda?  All of these festivals were celebrated in ancient times, prior to the evolution of Christmas as we know it, and many of them may have influenced traditions that we still continue to this very day.

Saturnalia, for instance, was an ancient Roman festival celebrated both publicly and privately for several centuries in honor of the Roman god known as Saturn.  This celebration would last several nights around the time of the Winter solstice, usually beginning around December 17th.  Feasting, singing, and the giving of small gifts were all common elements of Saturnalia according to historical sources.  Kind of sounds like caroling, family dinner and exchanging Christmas gifts, right?  Well it isn’t a coincidence that the very Romans who celebrated the Saturnalia holiday began a slow conversion to Christianity around the third or fourth century AD.  So technically when we sing Christmas carols, we can say we’re following an ancient tradition.  Pretty neat.

 woman singing Christmas songs

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Equally so with the consumption of roasted nuts and the telling of stories at night on Christmas, both customs common to the ancient Persian festival called Yalda.  Yalda is the celebration of the ancient god Mithra’s birth, and is observed on the night of the Winter Solstice (usually falling between December 20th and 22nd).  During this time, the Persians would strive to stay awake the entire night, eating specific nuts and fruits to protect them during the upcoming warm seasons.  Families and friends gathered together around the table to eat, recite poetry, tell stories, and exchange small wrapped favors of dried fruit (kind of like how westerners might exchange fruit cakes).

Yule as well has influenced many of our customs, particularly amongst those of Scandinavian ancestry.  The Yule holiday was originally celebrated primarily in Norway and later spread throughout Northern Europe.  Everything from decorating with holly, mistletoe, and pine, to the burning of a yule log, and even the things we eat and drink like mulled cider and egg nog, all were originally elements of Yule.  Even the red and green Christmas color scheme and the tradition of decorating a tree are customs adopted from early Yule celebrations.  After all, some still do refer to it as “yuletide” cheer!

 traditional vintage Christmas tree

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But no matter where these traditions came from and why we continue to celebrate them, there’s one thing about Christmas that will never really change: fun!

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