The Romans celebrated the winter solstice in a festival known as 'Saturnalia' between the 17th and 24th December, with the following day known as 'Juvenalia', an occasion where children were entertained through food and presents. The old darkness replaced by light and rebirth, and what better way to worship new beginnings than by celebrating children? Differing types of mid winter festivals are also associated with the ancient Greeks, Egyptians, Pagans and Persians to name just a few; many of those celebrations based around the 'sun gods' and rebirth, in line with the winter solstice.
But is the turn of winter the only reason humans celebrate this widespread festival? It is known in countries that experience significant darkness in winter that levels of depression increase in line with death and suicide rate. One reason for this is that the lack of sunlight causes less serotonin to be released in the brain, causing depression. This is commonly known as Seasonal Affective Disorder, or fittingly SAD, and can cause a variety of depressive problems.
Winter traditionally represents sparsity as little can grow and to a large part supplies from a successful summer harvest would have to be relied upon to survive. People both in those times, as well as now, would be less active especially in the outdoors with sleep time also increasing, making socialising less frequent and increasing the feeling of isolation and loneliness.With little natural light or warmth to count on the winter months would be a tough and unenjoyable time to live through even without SAD affecting the body's hormones.
It seems to me as though there is no better time to lift spirits throughout a community than in the middle of winter. A festival reverses many of the effects listed above by bringing people together to socialise and share, even for a short space of time. Presents are exchanged giving another sure fire reason to be happy, both in giving and receiving. The festival also has the effect of giving people something to plan and look forward to in advance, giving the community a united occasion where everyone is involved and everyone has an event they can discuss and share together, both before, during and after.
To counter the darkness light is brought into the family home traditionally through special candles or fires, with a new atmosphere being brought about through song and dance. Today everything is lit up by extravagant lights both inside and outside the house, lifting the so called gloom and darkness of winter throughout the month of December. Songs are still sung throughout with a strong emphasis on music and parties, both in the workplace and in the family setting.
While food may have been scarce in olden times, the winter Xmas festival is traditionally one of gluttony, epitomised by a fat Santa Claus, where food and drink are taken in abundance meaning feelings of deprivation can be completely forgotten. The modern day Xmas is not far different, even poor families shower one another with gifts and food, forgetting any economic problems they might have for at least a few days of the year.
These attitudes of expenditure are naturally very good for the economy. Food and drink are sold in abundance everywhere while businesses prosper as the stock from the year is sold with sales happening between Xmas and January making room for the new lines to appear. It is another parallel of the death and rebirth celebration originally set aside for the sun and our natural environment, but is certainly applicable to modern day customs as well. The new year comes in only a week later and again represents a time of renewal and new beginnings with 'new years resolutions' a common theme; people wishing to improve themselves for the year ahead.