The New Year represents a new beginning in every way. Clearing up unfinished business, of whatever kind, is a good notion, and blowing away the cobwebs from the old year that has passed is no bad thing either. In parts of Scotland this was accomplished by the juniper and water rite.
After sunset on New Year’s Eve, people went out to gather branches of juniper and buckets of fresh water from a well or stream. The branches were then placed by the fire to dry out. In the morning the head of the household took a first drink of the water and then went around the house sprinkling everyone with a few drops.
This done, all doors and windows were closed tight and the branches of dried juniper were set alight and taken through the house until everything was thoroughly fumigated. This almost certainly dates back to a very old rite in which the sacred juniper was burned at fireplaces to ensure the gifts of the New Year were properly celebrated.
We can still do this today, since there are numerous kinds of incense made from juniper, or if we are adventurous enough we can make our own. Taken through the house this leaves a pleasant aroma and gives us a sense of new beginnings.
From The Silver Bough we have this nice little New Year’s Eve folk tradition::
The house received a mini spring-cleaning. Slops and ashes, which are usually removed in the morning, are carried out. Debts must be paid, borrowed articles returned, stockings darned, tears mended, clocks wound up, musical instruments tuned, pictures hung straight; brass and silver must be glittering; fresh linen must be put on the beds. Even in the slummiest houses… brooms and pails, soap, polishing rags and darning-needles emerge from neglected cupboards and drawers, and the bairns receive a thorough scrubbing in honor of the New Year.
New Year’s Eve is traditionally a time for assessing the past twelve months and for looking ahead to the New Year. Numerous customs are still retained in Europe and the United States, including the idea of kindling a new light from the old. This can be achieved in a number of ways, including the following simple ceremony.
At a few minutes to midnight, put out all of your lights except for a single candle or a lantern (it’s important that the light be a living one rather than electric). Send someone outside (traditionally it is someone who has dark hair) with the light, which they must guard and protect from the weather. As the clock strikes twelve have that person knock on the door. Open it and welcome them in with some form of ceremonial greeting, such as:
Welcome to the light of the New Year
And welcome he/she who brings it here.
Go around the house with the candle and relight all the lights you put out. If these can be candles so much the better, but don’t burn the house down In Scotland this custom is known as “First Footing,” and the person who first puts his or her foot across the door is the one who brings fortune to the whole household. Often someone in the house arranges with a friend to come to the house at the exact time carrying a gift – called a handsel in Scotland and consisting of a lump of coal, or a bottle of whiskey – something that will ensure that more gifts come throughout the next twelve months.
Source: The Winter Solstice
First Footing Lore:
Ideally, he should be dark-haired, tall, and good-looking, and it would be even better if he came bearing certain small gifts such as a lump of coal, a silver coin, a bit of bread, a sprig of evergreen, and some salt.
Blonde and redhead first footers bring bad luck, and female first footers should be shooed away before they bring disaster down on the household. Aim a gun at them if you have to, but don’t let them near your door before a man crosses the threshold.
The first footer (sometimes called the “Lucky Bird”) should knock and be let in rather than unceremoniously use a key, even if he is one of the householders.
After greeting those in the house and dropping off whatever small tokens of luck he has brought with him, he should make his way through the house and leave by a different door than the one through which he entered.
No one should leave the premises before the first footer arrives – the first traffic across the threshold must be headed in rather than striking out.
First footers must not be cross-eyed or have flat feet or eyebrows that meet in the middle.
Nothing prevents the cagey householder from stationing a dark-haired man outside the home just before midnight to ensure the speedy arrival of a suitable first footer as soon as the chimes sound.
If one of the partygoers is recruited for this purpose, impress upon him the need to slip out quietly just prior to the witching hour.
This holiday, celebrated on Dec 26, derives from the Old English custom of giving Christmas “boxes” to tradesmen, postmen, and servants. The original boxes were usually made of earthenware and contained money, which could be retrieved only by breaking the boxes open. These days, a gift of money is usually contained in a greeting card and given before the holiday. Where celebrated (Great Britain, Canada, and Australia), Boxing Day is welcomed as a quiet day of recuperation from the season’s hectic festivities. It is also the biggest day of the year for soccer playoffs.
Also known as Mithras (for the Persian Sun God), Saturnalia (for the Roman God of sowing and husbandry) and The Great Day of the Cauldron (from Druid Legend). It is the celebration of the return, or rebirth, of the Sun God, the Lord of Life. The celebrations were traditionally performed with the utmost solemnity, yet also with the highest rejoicing, for they resolve the paradox of Death and Rebirth. It represents the redemption of the world from Death and Darkness, as such it is a celebration of hope and joy amidst the gloom of winter.
The word Yule can be traced to the Celtic word `Hioul” which means wheel. This festival is an important point in the turning of the wheel of the year. Wreaths were made to symbolize this wheel, combining solar significance with tree-god significance. In ancient times Celts venerated trees as earthly representatives of the Gods, and it was felt that nothing short of the sacrifice of a mighty tree-god would cause the receding sun to take pity on them and return.
The burning of the Yule log was thought, through sympathetic magick, to increase the brightness and strength of the Sun, and would therefore bring good luck. Passersby would tip their hat or nod in salutation to the log. It is traditional to cut the log from oak or from a slow-burning fruit tree. The fire was lit from a piece of the previous years Yule log, which had been saved for this purpose. It was believed that this piece of the old log was a charm against fire, because it would refuse to burn until it was time to light its successor. A wish was also made while pouring wine over the burning log. It was believed to be bad luck if the log burned out before the 12 days of Yuletide were over. The ashes from the fire were spread in the fields to bring fertility to the next crop.
The Wassail bowl is another favored part of Yule celebrations. A large bowl or pot was filled with wassail, a mixture of cider and spices, and warmed over the Yule fire. The meaning of the word wassail is to be `hale or hearty’, and was the reason for the many toasts and salutations made from the bowl. It was also common for a procession to go to the nearest orchard and wassail the trees, thus blessing them and encouraging them to bear a good yield in the coming season. Libations of wassail were also poured over the roots of the trees, and cider drenched cakes were left in the forks of the older trees as an offering to the trees spirit.
Mistletoe is a regeneration symbol, considered to be the Essence of Life due to the resemblance of the juice of the berries to male semen. It was often gathered at this time. Evergreen boughs are also symbols of renewal. Evergreens were decorated to show honor to the tree spirits. The lights on modern trees were the candles of old, and represent the newly born sun god. Trees were not cut down and brought indoors.
The Sacred Seed of Life, having been nurtured by the foster mother Tailltiu, sprang forth from her breast, and was born. As the Wyrrd had foretold, here was the Child of Promise, son of the Gods and of the Earth. This baby was the Sun God, born in the Rule of Darkness, by the magick of the Gods. He was destined to grow in strength and knowledge. It was his task to bring back life and warmth to the land, and to wrest the power from the Lord of Darkness. To appease Cernunnos, who is at the peak of his strength, the people made sacrifices of roasted boar. To distract Callieach, the Wise Ones, or Witches invoked her to teach them of her mysteries. To aid the new-born Sun God the Celts felled a giant oak tree, and burned the log as a sacrifice, that the sun would gain strength from it, and grow.
Despite the powers of Cernunnos and Cailleach, the signs of new life were still upon the land. The sacred seeds which had fallen onto the barren branches of the winter-dead trees had come to life, and thus became the Mistletoe, which could be seen hanging from the oaks in the forests. Upon the land these sacred seeds had grown into the sweet smelling evergreens, and thus they were decreed to be a part of the celebration.
In honor of this magickal birth the people decorated the evergreens with candles and other symbols of life. The Druids told of Hu-Gadarn, the first druid, who had fled from the Atlalntean flood with his family on this day on the Ark, “The Great Cauldron” in which they brought the Essence of Life, and the knowledge of magick into the world. They would also tell tales of the Killing of the Wren, and of the Battle between the Oak King and the Holly King. Throughout the land the people rejoiced, and there was light in the midst of the darkness.
From the earliest times the twelve days have been regarded as a time when supernatural events can easily happen, when the dead are close at hand and might often be seen.
One reads of the Wild Hunt, or the Fairy Host riding across the lands of Britain and Germany in particular, led by characters such as King Arthur, Woden, and Arawn, the Celtic god of the Underworld. In Ireland these supernatural hunters are known as the Yule Host, and in common with all these bands they are believed to gather up wandering souls and carry them away to the Otherworld.
The Twelve Days of Christmas stand outside of “ordinary time,” and celebrations focus on the return of the sun and a continuation of the eternal cycle of life.
The days from Christmas Eve on December 24th to Epiphany on the 6th of January (actually fourteen days as the first and last are not included in the twelve) really exist out of linear time. They are, in a sense, the fruit of the past year, one day for each month that has passed. Over the centuries the dates have changed – sometimes radically.
Here’s a list of commonly accepted dates and traditions:
- Day 0 – Dec 24 – Christmas Eve
- Day 1 – Dec 25 – Christmas Day, Birthday of Jesus, Mithras, Attis, Aion, Horus, Dionysus, and The Unconquered Sun.
- Day 2 – Dec 26 – St Stephen’s Day, Boxing Day, Day of the Wren
- Day 3 – Dec 27 – Mother Night, St John’s Day
- Day 4 – Dec 28 – Holy Innocent’s Day, Childremass, Dyzymas Day
- Day 5 – Dec 29 – Feast of Fools
- Day 6 – Dec 30 – Bringing in the Boar
- Day 7 – Dec 31 – New Year’s Eve, Hogmanay
- Day 8 – Jan 1 – New Year’s Day,
- Day 9 – Jan 2 – The Kalends of January
- Day 10: – Jan 3 – Snow Day
- Day 11 – Jan 4 – Evergreen Day
- Day 12 – Jan 5 – Twelfth Night
- Day 13 – Jan 6 – Epiphany,
When researching lore and magicks for the Twelve Days of Christmas I found a lot of disagreement as to the dates. So, from Wikipedia we have this explanation and additional information:
The Twelve Days of Christmas are the festive days beginning Christmas Day (25 December). This period is also known as Christmastide and Twelvetide. The Twelfth Night of Christmas is always on the evening of 5 January, but the Twelfth Day can either precede or follow the Twelfth Night according to which Christian tradition is followed. Twelfth Night is followed by the Feast of the Epiphany on 6 January. In some traditions, the first day of Epiphany (6 January) and the twelfth day of Christmas overlap.
Over the centuries, differing churches and sects of Christianity have changed the actual traditions, time frame and their interpretations. St. Stephen’s Day (or Boxing Day), for example, is 26 December in the Western Church and 27 December in the Eastern Church.Boxing Day, on December 26, is observed as a legal holiday in parts of the Commonwealth of Nations. 28 December is Childermas or the Feast of the Innocents.
Currently, the twelve days and nights are celebrated in widely varying ways around the world. For example, some give gifts only on Christmas Day, some only on Twelfth Night, and some each of the twelve nights.
In England in the Middle Ages, this period was one of continuous feasting and merrymaking, which climaxed on Twelfth Night, the traditional end of the Christmas season. Continue reading
Saturnalia was an ancient Roman festival in honor of the deity Saturn. Originally it was held on 17 December of the Julian Calendar, but the party later expanded with festivities through to 23 December. The poet Catullus called it “the best of days”.
In Roman mythology, Saturn was an agricultural deity who was said to have reigned over the world in the Golden Age, when humans enjoyed the spontaneous bounty of the earth without labor in a state of innocence. The revelries of Saturnalia were supposed to reflect the conditions of the lost mythical age, not all of them desirable. The Greek equivalent was the Kronia.
Although probably the best-known Roman holiday, Saturnalia as a whole is not described from beginning to end in any single ancient source. Modern understanding of the festival is pieced together from several accounts dealing with various aspects.
Here’s some History:
Saturnalia festivities began with ritual and sacrifices in the Temple of Saturn. The statue of the god was hollow and filled with olive oil, as a symbol of his agricultural functions. His feet were bound with woolen strips, that were unbound at Saturnalia.
After the rituals, the Senators (who had to be present) dismissed the crowd with the cry of “Io, Saturnalia!”, a sign for the happy festivities of family parties and other private gatherings to begin. The traditional gifts were wax tapers and little dolls, although gifts of silver later became traditional.
The custom of the Lord of Misrule was appropriated and survived through to English Christmas traditions.
The biggest part of Saturnalia was attitude more than decoration. Feasting, drunkenness, merrymaking, hopefully the conception of more children (or at least enjoying those activities which led to conception!), pranks, gift giving, role reversals (not true ones, only symbolic ones – slaves weren’t really free to make a freedman’s decisions and anything they did or decreed would reverse at the end of Saturnalia, children weren’t really adults and could not enter into any binding contracts or make business deals, etc.) and so forth.
The role reversals seemed to be more for minor privileges – slaves and children got to be waited on for meals, and to lead the rituals, and to participate in the revelry as if they were their parents/masters. The parents/masters jokingly played the part of slaves and children by waiting on them and making rude and bawdy jokes at their expense. Sometimes, it descended into cruelty.
Many of the decorations involved greenery – swathes, garlands, wreaths, etc – being hung over doorways and windows, and ornamenting stairs. Ornaments in the trees included sun symbols, stars, and faces of the God Janus. Trees were not brought indoors (the Germans started that tradition), but decorated where they grew.
Food was also a primary decoration – gilded cakes in a variety of shapes were quite popular, and children and birds vied for the privilege of denuding the trees of their treats. The commonest shapes were fertility symbols, suns and moons and stars, baby shapes, and herd animal shapes (although, to be honest, it’s hard to tell if some of those ancient cookie cutters are supposed to be goats or deer). I would imagine coins were also a popular decoration/gift.
People were just as likely to be ornamented as the trees. Wearing greenery and jewelry of a sacred nature was apparently common, based on descriptions, drawings, and the like from the era. Although the emphasis was on Saturn, Sol Invictus got a fair share of the revelry as well.
On a modern note:
This ancient midwinter festival falls at the time when non-Romans are celebrating Christmas, Hanukkah, Solstice and/or Kwanzaa. In Nova Roma, individual Citizens have chosen different approaches to the challenge of celebrating in the spirit of Rome without cutting themselves off from the culture in which they live.
Gold, because the sun is yellow, is always a sure choice for a good Saturnalia decoration. For modern Saturnalia, those golden glass ball ornaments are ideal, as are gold sun faces, gold stars, and gilded anythings. Gilding nuts and pine cones and nestling them among the swags and wreaths of greenery would be a lovely way of acknowledging the ancient roots of this ceremony.
Indoor trees are not ancient Roman, but if you have plants growing indoors, decorating them would certainly be in the spirit of the holidays. If you just have to have the now-traditional indoor tree, try decorating it in gold ornaments with a solar theme. Swathe it in bright red or purple ribbons (2 colors quite in favor with the Romans, and looks great with the gold ornaments). Top the tree with a sun, rather than a star, for after all, this is a solar celebration.
Wild parties with lots of food and drink is good. Letting the children of the household lead the common rituals, and waiting on them (assuming you don’t do so in everyday circumstances….) at mealtimes, and deferring to them in decisions on party ideas would work for role reversals.
No children in the house? Maybe you can borrow one for a day. We don’t have slaves, but, for a nice touch of role reversal, we could purchase the services of a nanny or a housekeeper for the duration of Saturnalia. It would be a role reversal of sorts, for instead of being the slave of your home, someone else would be doing the chores and cooking and childcare while you got to party down!
Dancing and singing in the streets is now frowned upon, unless you can get a parade permit. A parade, if you could organize it, would be fun. Imagine – giant floats of the Gods tended by the priests and acolytes, musicians and dancers, contortionists to amaze and delight, acrobats and jugglers, all in honor of Saturn!
For a compilation of Saturnalia celebrations reported by Nova Romans, visit Saturnalia practices of Nova Romans.
Here is a nice little article about the history of midwinter celebrations from Delaware Online:
Long ago, people worshiped the sun as a god. His cycles were watched and measured with great care because it was thought the quality of life on Earth changed dramatically according to his whims.
As the season changed and winter fell, survival became much harder for ancient man. Many would not live through a cold winter, when food became scarce. As the days shortened, they feared the sun would disappear completely and leave them helpless in the dark.
So they lighted fires and performed elaborate rituals to ensure the sun’s return. They also feasted when the sun reversed its course, and days began to grow long again.
One of the earliest solstice celebrations was the Mesopotamian holiday Zagmuk. When light waned in mid-winter, Mesopotamians would re-enact their god Marduk’s battle against the forces of darkness and chaos and then celebrate the victory of light and order.
More than 4,000 years ago, ancient Egyptians called their sun god Ra-Horakhty, later known as Horus. As winter arrived and his appearance became more brief each day, it was seen as a sign that he was growing weak and ill. In late December, when days began to grow longer, they celebrated his recovery and renewed health. They decked their homes with palm fronds, which symbolized the victory of life over death.
Romans honored the god Saturn by celebrating Saturnalia in early December. This festival was followed, on the solstice, by Brumalia, from the word bruma meaning “shortest day.”
By 70 A.D., many Roman soldiers had joined a cult around the sun god Mithras, whom they adopted after fighting in Persia, modern day Iran and Syria. Dec. 25 was recognized as Mithras’ birthday.
Because Mithras was so popular with soldiers, his cult spread quickly to all parts of the Roman Empire, Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, the Balkans and gained a strong foothold in Britain. His temples, called Mithraeums, can be found throughout England and Germany.
In the fourth century, the Roman Emperor Constantine proclaimed Dec. 25 the birthday of Jesus Christ, according to many scholars.
“The popularity of Mithraism in the Roman Empire was probably why the early Christian Church decided to celebrate the birth of Jesus at that time,” said Alan Fox, a philosophy professor at the University of Delaware. It was thought that it would be easier to persuade the local people to accept new beliefs if the new religious rituals were superimposed on a holiday from their own religion.
Our Christmas celebrations closely resemble the ancient Roman festivals. People went visiting, gifts were exchanged and feasts were shared. Decorated cookies and cakes were baked and given out to friends. Trees were hung with pieces of metal, and homes were lighted with candles and festooned with holly and other greenery, often in the form of wreaths.
As their earliest ancestors did, many Delawareans will celebrate the shortest day of the year, Dec. 21, with reflection and celebration.
Ivo Dominguez Jr. plans to mark the event outside his rural Georgetown home with a bonfire and rituals that symbolize new light and life. Under the night sky, Dominguez, an elder in a religious community known as the Assembly of the Sacred Wheel, will gather with more than 50 fellow Wiccans.
Wicca, a nature religion whose central deity is a mother goddess, is one of the nation’s fastest-growing spiritual traditions, according to the American Academy of Religion. It was formally founded in the United Kingdom in the late 1940s.
To Dominguez and other practitioners, the fascination with the cycles of nature goes back tens of thousands of years. And for people atuned to the Earth and the sun, the winter solstice is an important time.
“It’s a time to gather and renew hope,” Dominguez said.
Many spiritual traditions also have rituals of light at what is also the season of greatest dark.
Judaism has Hanukkah, a festival of lights. And Christians have numerous traditions, including the lighting of a Christmas tree. An annual celebration that remains popular in Delaware’s Swedish community is the St. Lucia Festival.
Because St. Lucia’s name means light, she was known as the saint of light in Norway and Sweden and was considered responsible for turning the tide of long winter days and bringing back the sun.
This year, about 300 people gathered Sunday at the Old Swedes Episcopal Church in Wilmington to watch the pageant. It begins with a procession led by a young girl chosen to represent St. Lucia.
During the pageant, St. Lucia wears a crown of candles, and her attendants wear white gowns with red sashes to symbolize Lucia’s bloody death by sword. She was said to have been beheaded in the year 304 during Christian persecutions in Sicily. St. Lucia’s feast day (the day of her martyrdom) falls on Dec. 13, which, by the Julian calendar, was also the solstice. In 1300, with the change to the Gregorian calendar, the solstice came to fall on Dec. 21.
“The festival of St. Lucia is very important in Sweden because they have a lot of darkness.” said Jo Thompson, a spokeswoman for the Old Swedes church. “The solstice was a signal that spring is coming.”
At Mill Creek Unitarian Universalist Church, an outdoor gathering will help participants connect with nature, said church minister Nancy Dean. The church will celebrate the solstice at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday with a bonfire and service.
“Winter was always a difficult time,” Dean said. “Dread of winter is still a part of our biology.”
The celebration also is a way to honor religions that predate modern ones. Ancient people felt “a need to honor the deities perceived to be in charge of all this,” she said.
Dean will gather fellow celebrants in a circle and join them in chanting and singing. Each participant will hold an evergreen branch, usually holly, and toss it into the fire. The group will share what has been important in their lives during the year. Afterward, a party with a jazz band, cookies and hot chocolate will continue the festivities.
Other area churches also note the winter solstice. The Unitarian Universalist Church of Delaware County in Media, Pa., plans to focus on rebirth. Congregants will gather at 7:30 tonight to welcome the return of the light with song, drumming, dancing and candlelight.
People gain comfort from these celebrations, Dean said.
“It is a hope-filled time because, though it is dark and cold, you know things will get better as the days lengthen,” she said. “Honoring the longest night reminds [people] to see hope during the other dark times of their lives.”
Art from: Megalithic
Bodhi Day, celebrated on December 8, is the Buddhist holiday that commemorates the day that the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama (Shakyamuni), experienced enlightenment, also known as bodhi in Sanskrit and Pali. According to tradition, Siddhartha had recently forsaken years of extreme ascetic practices and resolved to sit under a peepal tree and simply meditate until he found the root of suffering, and how to liberate oneself from it.
Services and traditions vary among Buddhist sects, but all such services commemorate the Buddha’s achievement of Nirvana, and what this means for Buddhism today. Individuals may choose to commemorate the event through additional meditation, study of the Dharma, chanting of Buddhist texts (sutras), or performing kind acts towards other beings. Some Buddhists celebrate with a traditional meal of tea, cake, and readings.
Celebrating Bodhi Day
Bodhi Day, the day of enlightenment, can be celebrated in many ways. To the Buddhist, it is a day of remembrance and meditation, much like the Christian celebration of the birth of Jesus on December 25th.
To the layman, a good way of recognizing this important event in Buddhism is to dwell on its meaning and place reminders in the home of this event. Often, colored lights are strung about the home to recognize the day of enlightenment. They are multi-colored to symbolize the many pathways to enlightenment. The lights are turned on each evening beginning on December 8th and for 30 days thereafter. A candle is also lit for these thirty days to symbolize enlightenment.
In Buddhist homes, you will sometimes see a ficus tree of the genus ficus religiousa. Beginning on Bodhi Day, these trees are decorated with multi-colored lights, strung with beads to symbolize the way all things are united, and hung with three shiny ornaments to represent the Three Jewels – The Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha.
A meal of rice and milk is significant on this holiday. According to Buddhist legend, following his awakening this was the first meal offered to the Buddha by Sujata to help him regain strength.
To get children involved in this holiday, make cookies in the shape of a leaf or a tree to symbolize the Bodhi Tree. The leaves of the Bodhi tree are heart shaped, so a Valentine’s Day cookie cutter can be a handy tool for this project.
About the Great Awakening:
Traditions vary on what happened. Some say Siddhartha made a great vow to Nirvana and Earth to find the root of suffering, or die trying. In other traditions, while meditating he was harassed and tempted by the god Mara (literally, “Destroyer” in Sanskrit), demon of illusion. Other traditions simply state that he entered deeper and deeper states of meditation, confronting the nature of the self.
In the Pali Canon, there are several discourses said to be by Buddha himself, relating to this story. In The Longer Discourse to Saccaka, the Buddha describes his Enlightenment in three stages:
- During the first watch of the night, the Buddha discovered all of his past lives in the cycle of rebirth, realizing that he had been born and reborn countless times before.
- During the second watch, the Buddha discovered the Law of Karma, and the importance of living by the Eightfold Path.
- During the third watch, the Buddha discovered the Four Noble Truths, finally reaching Nirvana.
In his words:
“ My heart, thus knowing, thus seeing, was released from the fermentation of sensuality, released from the fermentation of becoming, released from the fermentation of ignorance. With release, there was the knowledge, ‘Released.’ I discerned that ‘Birth is ended, the holy life fulfilled, the task done. There is nothing further for this world.’ ”
All traditions agree that as the morning star rose in the sky in the early morning, the third watch of the night, Siddhartha finally found the answers he sought and became Enlightened, and experienced Nirvana. Having done so, Siddhartha now became a Buddha or “Awakened One”.
The 5thDecember was an ancient Roman festival, dedicated to Saturn’s grandson, Faunus, a god of the wildwood. The Romans celebrated Faunalia Rustica not in Rome but the countryside, so it is not registered in the calendars. However, it must have played a significant part in the lives of many Romans, especially in the early days.
In rural areas, individual farmers offered a libation of wine and sacrificed a young goat on the ancient altar made of sod. Horace recounts the peaceful holiday in one of his pastoral poems. The farmers relaxed and danced joyfully in the fields where they had labored so long and hard.
At Rome, there was a temple to Faunus on the Caelian Hill and another on Tiber Island, where the public ritual for the festival of Faunus (February 13) was conducted. However, the attempt to introduce the rural cult of Faunus into urban life was not very successful. Faunus remained chiefly a wild spirit of the countryside.
Faunus was an unpredictable deity who could cause havoc to those who farmed the land around his wildwoods. However, if correctly pacified, he could be helpful– especially during the winter season.
The name ‘Faunus’ comes from the root word favere or ‘kindly one.’ But Faunus could be anything but kindly. Dionysius also describes how his apparitions could inspire ‘terror.’ He could become an incubus, pursuing women through their dreams. He could also make life a misery for farmers around his groves.
If they were foolish enough to claim woodland as fields for their farms without first appeasing him, Faunus would appear as an apparition on the edge of the fields, haunting them.
But, by taking precautions and offering him sacrifices, it was possible to pacify and tame Faunus– for a while at least. Ovid describes how country folk would make the “the altars of rural Faunus smoke” with the sacrifices to ensure the god of the wildwood blessed their fields and livestock with fruitfulness– rather than persecuting and blighting them. The merry-making and sacrifices ensured his good offices over the winter months.
Horace’s Odes captures the essence of the festival and its rituals:
“O Faunus, thou lover of the flying nymphs, benignly traverse my borders and sunny fields and depart propitious to the young offspring of my flocks; if a tender kid fall [a victim] to thee at the completion of the year and plenty of wines be not wanting in the goblet, the companion of Venus and the ancient altar smoke with liberal perfume.
“All the cattle sport in the grassy plain when the nones of December return to thee; the village keeping holiday enjoys leisure in the fields, together with the oxen free from toil. The wolf wanders among the fearless lambs, the wood scatters its rural leaves for thee and the laborer rejoices to have beaten the hated ground in triple dance.”
The sacrifice of a goat kid and wine to the god, while villagers danced and celebrated among the autumn leaves, evoked a last festivity before the harshness of winter. But it was also essential to have Faunus’ good favor during the harsh winter season.
The country folk required Faunus’ guardianship of their flocks during the harsh winter months– as well as his good favor if they were to safely mine his woodlands for fuel and supplement their food.
Collected from various sources, including Decoded
The goddess Bona Dea also had a May festival, which is better known. The winter festival was held in December, at the home of the current senior annual Roman magistrate cum imperio, whether consul or praetor. It was hosted by the magistrate’s wife and attended by respectable matrons of the Roman elite. This winter festival is not marked on any known religious calendar but was dedicated to the public interest and supervised by the Vestals, and therefore must be considered official.
Men were not allowed to know Her name, never mind speak it, and they were also forbidden from Her secret festival. There were other taboos concerning the worship of the Bona Dea: neither wine nor myrtle were to be mentioned by name during Her secret festival, likely because they were both sacred to Her and therefore very powerful.
Shortly after 62 BC, Cicero presents it as one of very few lawful nocturnal festivals allowed to women, privileged to those of aristocratic class, and coeval with Rome’s earliest history.
The Winter festival is known primarily through Cicero’s account, supplemented by later Roman authors. First, the house was ritually cleansed of all male persons and presences, even male animals and male portraiture. Then the magistrate’s wife and her assistants made bowers of vine-leaves, and decorated the house’s banqueting hall with “all manner of growing and blooming plants” except for myrtle, whose presence and naming were expressly forbidden.
A banquet table was prepared, with a couch (pulvinar) for the goddess and the image of a snake. The Vestals brought Bona Dea’s cult image from her temple and laid it upon her couch, as an honored guest. The goddess’ meal was prepared: the entrails of a sow, sacrificed to her on behalf of the Roman people, and a libation of sacrificial wine.
The festival continued through the night, a women-only banquet with female musicians, fun and games, and wine; the last was euphemistically referred to as “milk”, and its container as a “honey jar”. The rites sanctified the temporary removal of customary constraints imposed on Roman women of all classes by Roman tradition, and underlined the pure and lawful sexual potency of virgins and matrons in a context that excluded any reference to male persons or creatures, male lust or seduction.
According to Cicero, any man who caught even a glimpse of the rites could be punished by blinding. Later Roman writers assume that apart from their different dates and locations, Bona Dea’s December and May 1 festivals were essentially the same.