We’re in winter now, marked by a sharp frost and bright sunshine (hurray!). The winter solstice occurred today in France at 00.03 Central European Time. The December solstice marks the shortest day/longest night of the year. This is when the North Pole is at its furthest point from the sun. But it varies slightly from year to year, so in some years it occurs on 21st December.
The evenings will start drawing out from here, although it will be imperceptible for a while. But at least it’s going in the right direction. Around mid-January, it becomes more noticeable. What significance does the solstice d’hiver have in France?
Nowadays, not very much. However, in pre-Christian times it was one of the more important days of the year, along with Midsummer’s Eve, which marks the longest day/shortest night.
Pagan beliefs held that evil spirits and witches flourished during the long, dark days but that the solstice signified the triumph of light over darkness. I am eliding a lot of history here, but that’s the essence of it.
Originally, the solstice was dated to 25th December after the Julian calendar was introduced in 56BC. But errors introduced by the Julian way of calculating things had to be corrected later. So when Pope Gregory XIII introduced the Gregorian calendar in 1582, the solstice moved forward to 21st December and 25th was kept for the Christian celebration.
The French name for Christmas, Noël, comes in fact from the Latin dies natalis, the day of birth. This was originally associated with the solstice festivals signifying the rebirth of the unvanquished sun.
As an aside, the Pope had to shave 10 days off the month of October 1582 to put things right. A bit tough if your birthday fell during those 10 days that year. However, many countries were slow to follow. In France, Henri III finally decreed that 10 days should be removed from December 1582. You can imagine the disruption if they had to do that today.
Some of the pagan beliefs associated with the solstice hung on but were incorporated into the Christian church. The tradition of lighting a huge bonfire was one of the old rituals to ensure that the sun would return.
This was a common practice in Corsica until comparatively recently, but the lighting of the bonfire moved to Christmas Eve. In fact, this tradition still continues in some Corsican villages. The bonfire was lit in the main square, where the church is normally situated, and kept alight until the New Year. Everyone contributed wood. If you failed to do so, there would be a death in the household the following year.
In France, villagers also lit bonfires at the solstice. The resulting ashes were scattered on the fields as fertiliser. There was also a belief that if you kept some of the ashes under the bed, they would protect the house from lightning strikes. Perhaps we should try this. We’ve lost various bits of electronic kit over the years owing to storms.
Later on, the traditional log (la Bûche de Noël) became associated with Christmas. It inspired the classic French Christmas dessert, a Swiss-roll type confection of chocolate cake, cream and thick, fondant icing. Much as I love chocolate, the idea of that after a heavy meal doesn’t appeal. But then I don’t care for Christmas pud and brandy butter, either.
It’s interesting to see how often the rituals and customs of previous ages are incorporated into later practice. Thus, some of the traditions now taken for granted as Christmas customs actually originated long before Christianity.
P.S. This has nothing to do with the solstice, but I am on Day 29 of a self-imposed no-alcohol challenge. Not a drop has passed my lips since 23rd November. The thought of doing it in January was too miserable to contemplate. Those of you who know me will realise that this is no mean feat. The challenge ends tomorrow, just in time for Christmas. But I will, of course, partake avec modération.
Next up: the La Lune Christmas Quiz. Christmas just wouldn’t be the same without it, so stay tuned.
You might also like:
Copyright © 2014 Life on La Lune, all rights reserved