Christmas has long been a time for gluttony

Christmas is approaching; people are giving themselves over to wild excess, while misanthropes moan. They wail that Christmas has become a festival of excess, an orgy of licentiousness, a celebration of gluttony

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Since these are exactly the aspects of Christmas that I most enjoy, I bridle when told by misguided joyless folk that I am betraying the true spirit of Christmas. Particularly because anyone with a passing knowledge of the history of the midwinter festival now known as Christmas will know that ever since humans became capable of sharing a common culture, they have let their hair down and partied at the time of year when the days are shortest.

Christmas is a lot older than Jesus Christ. In fact Christians only decided to co-opt 25 December about 1,500 years ago. Before that the days around midwinter were a time of rest, banqueting, excess and gift giving. The Slavs enjoyed the rather boisterous Korochun, the Greeks and Romans feasted in honour of Bacchus throughout December, a festival known as the Burnalia which climaxed on the night of 24 December, while another Roman festival, the Saturnalia, which finished on the 23rd, saw slaves go unpunished, informal dress worn and presents exchanged.

Pliny once complained that during this time he had to shut himself away in a secluded corner of the house to work because “the rest of the house is noisy with the license of holiday and festive shouts”. Across the Danube and the Rhine those sworn enemies of Rome, the Germanic people, were celebrating Yule. This was a midwinter festival which emphasised companionship, feasting, singing and the burning of a huge warmth-giving Yule log in the hearth. The Saami people of northern Scandinavia covered their doors with butter at midwinter to tempt the sun goddess Beiwe back into the heavens. bringing fertility and sanity with her.

Another sun goddess, Amaterasu, was worshipped in Japan. At midwinter, she was tempted out of her cave by, you guessed it, wild noise generated by her devotees. In Kurdistan, Şeva Zistanê is still celebrated with gusto by many. It dates back to pre-Islamic days, when it was believed that midwinter marked the birth of a new sun. Surprise, surprise: the Kurds congregate to feast and children are spoiled with sweets.

Midwinter has always been a time to celebrate surviving the year gone by and the promise of renewal and hope for the future. Harvests had been gathered, beer and wine were on hand and it was time to party. Across continents humans attempted to light up the dark, long nights and seized the chance to take time out from months of back-breaking agricultural toil.

So this Christmas enjoy yourself, misbehave outrageously and consume far too much food and alcohol. History is on your side.

Dan Snow is a historian, author and broadcaster. You can follow him on Twitter @thehistoryguy

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