A Calendar of Winter Festivities

November 01, 2019


At the beginning of the year, I finished reading Gillian Monks' wonderful book, Merry Midwinter, a fascinating read about the traditions and significance of the whole Winter season, from October right through to February.

In addition to explaining the origins of our cherished Christmas customs, Monks details the many special days surrounding the winter Solstice, providing inspiration for festivities throughout the season. This year, I've decided to pay attention to these special days, and contemplate their significance as an antidote to chaos and commercialism. The following is a calendar of Winter Festivities, with a brief explanation of their significance and traditions:

October


  • End October/Early November: Diwali, the five-day festival of lights, celebrated by millions of Hindus, Sikhs and Jains across the world. This year, Diwali will be celebrated on Sunday, October 27.
  • October 31st: Halloween, Samhain, All Hallow's Eve, All Saint's Eve.


November


  • 1st: All Saints' Day
  • 2nd: All Soul's Day
  • 5th: Guy Fawkes' Night, Bonfire Night; for fireworks, bonfires, storytelling.
  • 11th: Saint Martin's Day (Martinstag); the old start of Winter, traditional slaughter of the animals, lanterns.
  • 22nd: Saint Cecelia's Day; celebration of music.
  • 23rd: Saint Clement's Day; smith craft, metalwork and citrus fruits.
  • 25th: Saint Catherine's Day; celebration of learning, books, libraries, students, philosophers and teachers. Also celebrated in France as the patron saint of unmarried women, with gifts exchanged to bring luck in finding a husband!
  • Fourth Thursday in November: Thanksgiving (this year celebrated on 28th November)
  • Last Sunday in November: First Sunday of Advent, this year, however, it falls on 1st December.
  • 30th: Saint Andrew's Day; Patron saint of Scotland.

December

  • 1st: More widely recognised as the first day of Advent, when we begin opening our calendars.
  • 4th: Saint Barbara's Day; connection to the harvest, wheat, fruits and prosperity.
  • Night of the 5th: Krampusnacht; according to folklore, on the evening of December 5, Krampus punishes children who have been bad by whipping them with his switch. Children will shine their shoes and leave them outside to see if they are filled with sweets (by Saint Nicholas, see December 6th) or with a stick (by Krampus, should he choose to be lenient).
  • 6th: Saint Nicholas' Day; shoes, socks or stockings would traditionally be filled with treats. Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of children.
  • 13th: Saint Lucy's Day; festival of lights, leave a candle in your window.
  • 17th: Start of the Roman Saturnalia.
  • 21st: Astronomical Solstice, first of the "raw nights", first of the "smudging" nights and Saint Thomas' Day.
  • 22nd: Sun enters the zodiacal sign of Capricorn.
  • 23rd: End of Roman Saturnalia.
  • 24th: Christmas Eve, Mothers' Night, celebration of mothers, childhood, motherhood; second smudging night; holy night.
  • 25th: Christmas Day, birth of Jesus, Mithras, Osiris, Apollo, Marbon, Sol Invictus; rebirth of the sun/son.
  • 26th: Boxing Day, Saint Steven's Day, charity to others, gifts and giving to others.
  • 28th: Holy Innocents' Day, Children's Day.
  • 29th: Feast of Fools, ceremonial social reversal.
  • 30th: Honouring the Boar.
  • 31st: New Year's Eve, third smudging night, traditional day for presenting mumming plays.

January

  • 1st: New Year's Day, wassailing.
  • 4th: Distaff Day, ceremonial return to work or school.
  • 5th: Twelfth Night, fourth and final ceremonial smudging and end of the "raw nights"; eve of Epiphany, removal of Midwinter decorations.
  • 6th: Epiphany, Three Kings' Day and Old Christmas Day; birthday of Dionysus.
  • First Monday after Twelfth Night: Plough Monday, official return to work, beginning of the agricultural year. In 2020 this falls on 6th January.
  • 17th: Alternative day for wassailing.
  • 25th: Saint Dwynwen's Day, Welsh patron saint of lovers.

February

  • 1st: Celebration of Gwyl Ffraid, Imbolc, the end of deep winter and the beginning of early Celtic spring.
  • 2nd: Candlemas, the official end of the Christmas season, time of light processions and rituals.

In Merry Midwinter, Monks explores all of these festivities in detail, enhanced with stories, recipes, legend and lore from times past and across cultures. It is a fascinating and illuminating read which I strongly recommend. This year, Monks has also released a second Christmas-themed book, The Alternative Advent Calendar, to help us mark the days leading up to Christmas in a more meaningful way:

When I was young, I loved having an Advent calendar, with twenty-four or twenty-five doors to open throughout the days of December. Rather than simply receiving a picture to look at or a gift, I thought that it might be good to put something on my author’s blog every day of December – an idea, a suggestion – of something everyone could do to give something back to the world around them.

To learn more about Gillian Monks and her books, check out Monks' official website or the Merry Midwinter companion website. And read her books, they are lovely.

Photo credit: Elke Mader, via Flickr.

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