The origins of holidays and festivals – by Fred Edwords

Celebrating Our Humanism: the origins of holidays and festivals

by Fred Edwords, director of the United Coalition of Reason, and a long-time national leader in the American humanist movement.

(Talk given at the NJHN HumanLight celebration, in Bridgewater, NJ, 12/18/2005)

Harvey Cox wrote in Earth Festivals:

We are by our nature creatures who not only work and think, but who sing, dance, pray, tell stories, and celebrate… We are Homo Festivus.”

Or, putting it more directly, the human being is the party animal.

And today is the second day of the ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia, the feast of Saturn, a celebration that ran from December 17th to the winter solstice, recognized then as falling on the 23rd. It featured wild parties, gift giving, and halls decked with laurel. It also was characterized by a reversal of the social order in which masters served their slaves.

So this is as good a time as any to discuss the meaning of the holidays. And not just the winter holidays, but those of spring, summer, and fall as well.

Why do humans celebrate holidays? Why do they mark and honor the change of seasons? Should we, as thoughtful people who occasionally seek to reassess common practices, continue in the tradition? And if so, how?

To begin, let’s explore the origins of holiday observance, look to the roots of our most common festivals, and try to determine their value for us today. We may decide that some observances should be discarded, others revived, and still others reinterpreted. To aid in this exploration and sorting, I’m going to work from the ancient Celtic calendar of nature festivals. This calendar, I find, is not only the most symmetrical but also the most closely related to the major holidays we recognize today, particularly in the northern hemisphere.

The Celtic year is divided into eight points. Four of those points are the familiar solstices and equinoxes marking the beginnings of each of the four seasons. The other four points occur in the middle of each of those seasons. In ancient hunting, gathering, herding, and agricultural societies, human activities needed to coincide with the cycles of nature because those cycles affected the weather and the food supply. Thus there were certain types of labor people engaged in at certain times of the year. And when the time of year changed, it was necessary to set aside one type of labor to commence with some other. At these times of change, the ancients took a “break” of sorts by holding a celebration or engaging in a ritual. Such activity tended to clear and refresh their minds and bodies and thus provide a suitable transition between one seasonal labor and another.

Very often the festivals held during these “breaks” involved a relaxing or even reversing of certain social norms. Known to anthropologists as “rites of reversal” or “rituals of rebellion,” they often involved mirthful clowning, mockery of religion, flouting of authority, class and sex-role reversals, and disregard of conventional models of decorum. They thus served as a therapeutic release of pent-up emotions. Such brief periods of disorder and irresponsibility also engendered a greater respect for accepted social behavior during the rest of the year.

What was true for humans also came to be regarded as a standard for supernatural beings. It was believed that they too needed a break and a time to frolic. And that brings us to the celebration that marked the eve of the Celtic new year, Samhain (Saw-WEEN), October 31st, variously known as the Feast of the Dead, the Feast of Souls, November Eve, All Hallow’s Eve, and Halloween. It was originally the day the Sun God would die, later to be born again from the Mother Goddess the first day of winter.

Falling at the mid-point between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice, this holiday marked the end of the intense and anxious activity of the harvest and the time when the last of the herds were returned from summer pasture. As Dr. Philips Stevens, Jr. of Niagara University notes, “The display of corn stalks and fall vegetables, and the consumption of seasonal foods like nuts, apples, and cider identify Halloween as a post-harvest festival.”

According to the Celtic folklore of Scotland, Ireland, and Wales, this was the time when the gods, the spirits, or the fairy folk could most easily pass from the spiritual into the material realm and vice versa. In medieval Welsh legend, the human hero named Pwyll, prince of Dyfed, traded places with the spirit hero Arawn, ruler of Annuvin, the land of the dead. A year and a day later they switched back, happy to find that each had solved the other’s princely problems during the exchange.

The spirits of the dead, becoming visible on this night, acquired greater power to invade human society. It was necessary, then, that while they frolicked about the countryside, they also needed to be kept at bay and prevented from entering the villages. This was accomplished by the setting of bonfires on hilltops and at the edges of each village. In the earliest times, the Celts and other peoples sacrificed living humans in these fires as a way of appeasing their gods. The Celts put the people in a large wicker effigy. Over time, animal sacrifices came to replace the human. And then both were supplanted by festivities where people simply leaped over the flames or animals were herded across the cooling embers.

Something like this sort of bonfire festival has been revived in our time as a summer celebration called Burning Man.

The jack-o’-lantern provided another way of warding off the evil spirits. “Jack” means any person, as in “jack-of-all-trades.” A “jack-of-the-lantern” was a common label for a night-watchman. The term was transferred to lanterns made of hollowed out vegetables, such as large squash, turnips, or potatoes in Britain and Ireland. It wasn’t until Scottish, Irish, and Welsh immigrants came to the United States that the pumpkin, an indigenous New World vegetable, come into use for jack-o’-lanterns.

In true form as a ritual of rebellion, Halloween in 19th and early 20th century America was a time of some rather interesting pranks. Teenagers would engage in malicious mischief of various sorts. My dad told me that a common form in his day, in the 1920s, was the dismantling of an automobile, part by part, reassembling it again on the owner’s roof. But, as if to keep the evil spirits at bay, in 1924 one police officer in San Diego, California, after catching a group of kids dumping over bus stop benches and dismantling street signs, lined them up and, one-by-one, turned them over his knee.

Today, the practice of giving kids treats on Halloween harks back to the ancient custom of offering the spirits special foods to secure their cooperation, and derives directly from the relatively recent practice of bribing kids to keep them from vandalizing one’s property. But underlying it all is the basic idea that people, children as well as adults, need times of reprieve from some of society’s rules, chances to indulge momentarily in seasonal foods and traditional fantasies.

The day after Samhain (Saw-WEEN) was first named All Saint’s Day by Pope Gregory III in the eighth century, later coming to be known as Hallowmass or All Hallows. November 2 later was named All Souls. Today, on the first Sunday following November 1, many Christian churches name and pray for members who have died during the year. Paying such reverence to the dead is the meaning of the Day of the Dead celebration in Mexico and the American Southwest. Commemorating human dead at the time of the “death” of nature in the fall is a very ancient tradition.

Well, with the harvesting and canning done, it was time to dig in for the winter—stock up, gather firewood, don warmer clothes and the like. And as the days grew colder and the mood got gloomier, another time for reprieve came around, the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, which usually falls on December 21st. Ancient peoples in the northern hemisphere knew that, after this date, the days would begin to grow longer. So they celebrated “the return of the Sun.”

The ancient Hebrews referred to it as the rebirth of light, calling their celebration the festival of Nayrot (NAY-rote), meaning festival of lights. Bonfires were lit for a week and a day to encourage nature by suggestion. Later, when Judah Maccabee defeated the Greeks and captured Jerusalem, he decided to rededicate the temple shrine to Yahweh during Nayrot (NAY-rote), renaming the holiday Hanukkah (which means Dedication). During Roman times, the historic role of Judah Maccabee was downplayed because the Jews were under Roman occupation,Yahweh getting top billing for a supernatural intervention that allowed a small amount of holy oil to last for eight days. The holiday itself was also downplayed, being reduced to a minor celebration, where it remained until our time.

But, as Rabbi Sherwin Wine of the Society for Humanistic Judaism notes:

In North America, in particular, the competition of Christmas rescued Hanukkah. It was taken from its theological mothballs and elevated to a status that even the Maccabees never imagined. Suddenly, candles, dreidels, potato pancakes, and the story of a minor military victory were dressed up to compete with Christmas carols, Christmas trees, the birth of a god, and the excitement of a new year.

Humanistic Jews today reach back to the origins of Hanukkah and see it as a celebration of the human mastery of fire, a symbol of human ingenuity and conquest of nature—the bringing of light to the darkness. This year the first day of Hanukkah happens to begin at sundown on Christmas.

The Christmas season as we know it today finds its roots in many traditions. I’ve already mentioned the Roman Saturnalia. As Roman Catholicism replaced ancient Roman polytheism, it found it necessary to adopt its holidays. So the last day of Saturnalia was quickly followed by the birthday of Christ (much as the day after Samhain became All Hallows or All Saints Day). However, this pragmatic move, made some time in the third century, didn’t meet with universal approval. The Christians of the Middle East viewed their European brethren as idolaters and sun worshippers for attempting to render such a pagan festival Christian. These eastern Christians thus launched the first “war on Christmas.” But they lost. And the adoption, or theft, of non-Christian customs continued.

The Madonna and Child icon was developed from the mother and child imagery of Cybele and Attis (Mother of God and Sun God), in use at Rome, itself rooted in the older Egyptian imagery of Isis and Osiris—the child in each case being born on December 25th. After the collapse of the Roman empire, the evergreen tree was added from Teutonic culture; holly and mistletoe, sacred to the Druids, was the Celtic contribution; and the yule log and caroling were products of Anglo-Saxon England. Throughout the Middle Ages in Europe, the Saturnalia practice of wild celebration over many days was continued. This became the twelve days of Christmas, the first day being Christmas itself, the whole season ending on Twelfth Night, January 5, the eve of Epiphany. This Christianized orgy of mirth and mayhem came complete with a mockery of political institutions. Each Christmas season some beggar or other individual low on the social ladder was elected “Lord of Misrule.” Still today in England Twelfth Night is celebrated with masquerade balls and parties.

In the early American colonies, most Protestants, particularly in New England, wouldn’t celebrate Christmas because it was viewed as a popish holiday. This was why George Washington’s largely Protestant troops didn’t object to crossing the Delaware on Christmas night to attack the Catholic Hessians the next morning. It was just another day to the colonists.

Only in the 1800s did the holiday begin to become in the United States what it is now. Northern European customs were introduced by the immigrants flowing onto our shores. These customs gradually became a means by which Christmas was made more palatable to Protestants. In fact, numerous individuals set out deliberately to fashion a secular observance for the season. Charles Dickens, bringing ghosts more to bear than traditional religion, developed the notion that this was the season to help the poor and unfortunate. Gift giving was resurrected from various folk and religious traditions, including the Roman Saturnalia, the Jewish Hanukkah, and the Dutch St. Nicholas Day. Christmas cards first appeared in 1846. American cartoonist Thomas Nast created the secular Santa Claus out of the varied European “Old Man Winter” folk imagery (having their roots in the Norse god Odin and variously called Kris Kringle, Father Frost, Father Christmas, and so forth). Some fabled attributes of the Catholic Saint Nicholas were added. The colors of Santa’s suit were quite varied until codified in the twentieth century by the Coca Cola company through their advertising.

In the late 1960s Ron Karenga, incarcerated civil-rights activist and head of the Humanist Chapter at the Men’s Colony at San Luis Obispo, California, developed a new secular tradition for African Americans. One of its holidays, Kwanzaa (meaning “first fruits”), is now widely celebrated from December 26th through January 1st as an important part of the winter holiday season.

In the case of my wife and myself, when our children were little we enjoyed a broad range of winter holiday traditions. We exchanged gifts off and on from December 17th to New Year’s Eve. That not only accommodated early and late-arriving gifts but it avoided the “Is that all?!” syndrome that often follows the usual Christmas orgy of wrapper ripping. We also put up a tree and lights, told stories, took trips, and all the rest. Ours was a time for celebration as well as for thinking of others. But there were no elements of belief attached to our observance. It wasn’t about Jesus. And the story of Santa Claus was simply a fairy tale and was told that way.

My family hasn’t been unique in this regard. Humanists in general embrace the natural human tendency to celebrate the change of seasons. Thus they have been celebrating the winter solstice for decades, recognizing it as the historical common denominator behind Christmas, Hanukkah, and other winter celebrations. Humanists look for the positive potential in such things and eagerly explore new ways to rejoice in the togetherness and love that have long marked the winter holiday season.

But in 2001 a new Humanist way to observe the winter season was inaugurated in New Jersey. Called HumanLight, its official date is December 23rd but it can be celebrated on the weekend just before Christmas. Since its first observance, a growing number of Humanist groups have joined in, holding HumanLight parties and banquets. But HumanLight is an idea that goes beyond celebration. It’s a vision of hope, reason, and compassion that can be shared with those close to us and our communities. HumanLight represents a positive vision of an ethical, enlightened, Humanist future.

For many Americans, the holiday season ends with the New Year’s Day hangover. Winter is clearly here and, unless we escape to Florida or already live in such warm climates, we do all the things people must do in cold weather.

But in the Celtic calendar, February 2nd brought another break, the festival of Imbolc, a time of fertility rituals traditionally associated with the lactation of female sheep. (No, I don’t get it either.) It was what’s called a prelude festival, a celebration announcing that spring is not far off. Chinese New Year and the Jewish Tu Bi-Shevat (Two-Bish-eh-VAT) and Purim (POOR-ihm) are three other such festivals. It was also a time when the days were noticeably longer. As such, it celebrated the returning light and was variously known as the Feast of Torches, Feast of Waxing Light, and Candlemas. Because it supernaturally marked the recovery of the Mother Goddess after giving birth to the Sun God, the Roman Catholic Church easily converted it into the Feast of Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which supposedly took place forty days after the birth of Christ. An old Scottish couplet proclaims:

If Candlemas is fair and clear,
There’ll be two winters in the year.

which means that, if the sun shines on this day, allowing the groundhog to see its shadow, then there will be six more weeks of winter. This is the origin of Groundhog Day, still celebrated every February 2nd.

But if Groundhog Day seems like a dull leftover from a Celtic fertility festival, it’s only because today’s leading fertility rites aren’t derived from the Celtic Calendar but from the Roman. The Romans took their own February break on the 15th. This was the Lupercalia, a time of costumes and wild orgies that the Roman Catholic church was unable to abolish until the end of the fifth century. And then they had to substitute something else: the feast of Saint Valentine, the source of the modern Valentine’s Day.

Still, even this celebration stands pale in comparison to what a fertility festival ought to be. If we want to find a true modern counterpart to what the ancient Celts and Romans enjoyed, we must look to that most notable rite of reversal called Carnival, Fasching, or Mardi Gras. This, too, is celebrated about this time of year, particularly in Europe, South America, the Caribbean, and the southern United States.

It all started when the Roman Catholic Church established Lent as the period of fasting and penitence forty weekdays before Easter. (Similar forty-day fasting customs had existed earlier in Egypt and Babylonia.) This created a situation where people would naturally want to get in their final pleasures just before the gloomy curtain fell on Ash Wednesday. That last chance was Shrove Tuesday—Fat Tuesday, which is what Mardi Gras means in French. The holding of carnivals and masked parades on the days leading up to Ash Wednesday became a lively Medieval custom, a
replacement for (or a moving of) the banned feast of Lupercalia. The word carnival itself comes from the Latin carne (meat) and vale (farewell). So it was a time to give meat and other favored foods a parting kiss and to give hedonism a big sendoff.

But the January/February 1992 issue of the Utne Reader reprised the nature-oriented rationale in this wise. “Let’s face it:” the magazine said,

February and early March are tough going. The festivities of the yuletide season are long gone but it’s still not full-fledged spring, at least not over most of North America. Late winter cries out for a gala holiday celebration, and Washington’s Birthday and Ground Hog Day just don’t fill the bill. Actually, many cultures from New Orleans to Trinidad to Brazil to Germany chase away the doldrums with bawdy celebrations of carnival. A pagan rite turned Catholic custom, carnival allows the wild side of our souls to sneak out with the help of costumes, parades, raucous music, and unrestrained behavior. It may be just what we need to tide us over until the tulips bloom and baseball begins.

The world’s most spectacular carnival is held in Rio de Janeiro. The city’s poor dress richly in lavish costumes. The rich join in to partake of the wicked low life. Some men dress as women, some women dress as men, but many women dress in near nothing at all. It is a rite of reversal and rebellion taken to the limits. The release of pent up passions lead to its dark side, however. Although everything seems permitted, including adultery, this hasn’t necessarily put a moratorium on all jealousy. The murder rate over love triangles is at its height during the carnival season. Meanwhile, in parts of Germany, “carnival freedom” is a legally-recognized excuse for almost everything except murder and drunk driving. Judges often won’t grant divorces where the proceedings are motivated only by indiscretions that took place at this time. “Go home together and forget about it,” the judge will say. “It was only Fasching.”

Lent, which is the Old English word for spring, leads to Easter, the Christian movable feast that finds its origin in the celebration of the vernal equinox, the first day of spring, usually falling on March 23rd.

The word equinox is Latin for equal night, the equinoxes being the times when the hours of daylight equal the hours of darkness. The advent of spring is celebrated around this time all over the world. Chase’s Annual Events describes the celebration of Holi in North India as an “Exuberant festival of colors” where all of North India goes wild as people come out of their homes to smear each other with colored powder and throw colored water. There is revelry and song as “bhang” is imbibed and inhibitions are shed while the people celebrate the coming harvest.

Around this time is also the Muslim festival, Lailat al-Qadr (LAY-laht al-KAYDER), The Night of Power. Earth Day has been celebrated on the vernal equinox, as have various maple sugar harvest festivals in North America.

The Jewish Passover was created by King Josiah around 620 BCE out of the farmer’s fertility festival called Matsot (Mat-SOHT) and the shepherd’s fertility festival called Pesakh (PESS-akh or PAY-sack). The two were made one and linked to the supposed historic event some six hundred years earlier of Yahweh killing the first born sons of the Egyptians so that Pharaoh would let Moses and his people go. Passover, being part of a lunar rather than a solar calendar, didn’t always fall on the vernal equinox. And so the Christian Easter—which is observed on the first Sunday after the full moon on or next after the vernal equinox, or one week later if the full moon falls on a Sunday—rarely coincides with the vernal equinox. But it is a spring celebration nonetheless.

In fact, Easter is the only Christian holiday to retain its original pre-Christian name. Easter or Ostern was the Germanic goddess of fertility, earlier called Ishtar by the Babylonians and Assyrians, Astarte by the Phoenicians, Aphrodite by the Greeks, Isis by the Egyptians, and many other names by many other peoples. These goddesses were either the consorts, wives, sisters, or mothers of the Sun God. As such, watching the sun rise in the East was part of their ritual. It is from this that we have the Easter sunrise service. Painted Easter eggs originated in ancient Egypt as emblems of generative life, the Babylonian Ishtar hatched from an egg in heaven, and the Celtic Druids used the egg as a sacred symbol of spring, the season of birth. The fertility rites of spring often involved couples having sex in their fields or among their flocks to inspire nature by example to be fruitful.

Well, of course, spring weather isn’t usually underway at the vernal equinox. It is in May that nature flowers. And so, with the putting of the cattle out to pasture would come another celebration, called Beltane (Bell-TINA) in the Celtic calendar, a festival of optimism later called May Eve, Walpurgis Night, and Roodmass. It fell on April 30th and was immediately followed by May Day, an ancient celebration that, in its Medieval form, involved the fertility rite of dancing around the phallic maypole. In some cultures, May Day celebrated the marriage of the Mother Goddess to her son, the Sun God. In modern times it has become a workers’ holiday.

With the onset of summer it was time once again to shift into a new mode. So a holiday once again provided a transition, this time a celebration of the summer solstice, usually on June 21st, the longest day of the year. A similar transition is experienced in North America today with the ending of the school year and the beginning of summer vacation around this time. Thus, for students graduating from high school or college, June is often a time of weddings, another type of festivity that signals a shift into a new mode.

Midway between the summer solstice and the autumnal equinox, the Celtic calendar marked out Lughnasa, the festival of Lugh, the god of light. Celebrated on the last day of July or the first day of August it was later called August Eve, Lammas Eve, Lady Day Eve, and the Feast of Bread. It was a major harvest time. Today in Wales it is called the Royal National Eisteddfod and is a cultural event. In India it is the Festival of the Goddess Parvati, consort of Lord Shiva. It marks the onset of the monsoon. But for North America it carries no significance. Indeed, August is the one month of the year with no major observances, which led a Florida Humanist group to create a new August holiday to celebrate that very thing!

The autumnal equinox, the first day of fall, is generally September 23rd. This was the last celebration before the Celtic new year, the end of summer and a time to soon begin the gathering in of crops. The shortening of daylight was recognized as foreshadowing the death of the Sun in winter. Today in North America, September marks the return of children to school. In the former Soviet Union there was the Ceremony of the First Bell when children entering school for the first time were welcomed by older students and made to feel comfortable in their new learning community.

The period beginning with the autumnal equinox ended in October with the harvest. As Dr. Phillips Stevens, Jr. notes:

In traditional agricultural societies, the harvest and other preparations for winter had to be accomplished quickly and efficiently. The end of this period of intense—and anxious—activity was a logical point for the year to end.

And so the Celtic new year ended on Samhain (Saw-WEEN), October 31st, bringing us full circle.

We can see in all these nature celebrations that they once played an important role in the lives of people. No matter what their gods, or if there were none, their celebrations served a similar human purpose—a way to mark a major transition in the year. In that sense they have been humanistic. They have provided release and a cleaning of the slate before the start of a new activity. This means that such celebration always was and always will be basically human, not the exclusive property of any one religion or even of religion itself. And to the extent that such celebrations relate to our lives today and can retain their positive human value, they are of worth to Humanists.

Therefore on this, our celebration of HumanLight, the specifically Humanist winter celebration, I think we would do well to welcome the whole calendar of festivals. These festivals are a part of our human heritage and they bind us back to nature.


This is the text as presented at the HumanLight celebration of the New Jersey Humanist Network on Sunday, December 18, 2005. It is an updated version of “The Advent of the Holidays,” a sermon delivered on Advent Sunday, December 4, 1994, at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Hamburg, New York.

© 1994 and 2005 by Frederick E. Edwords

Permission to reproduce this discourse in its entirety, complete with this copyright notice, in electronic or printout form, is hereby granted free of charge by the copyright holder to nonprofit Humanist, Ethical Culture, Unitarian Universalist, and Freethought organizations and individuals. All others must secure advance permission from the author.