The winter solstice occurs on December 21st in our current calendar and marks the longest night of the year in the northern hemisphere. For many ancient Greeks following the Attic calendar, the winter solstice was a time for celebrations marked by the feast of Poseidon, the god of the sea.
Religious practices varied immensely between different Greek poleis (city-states). At Eleusis, the festival called the Haloa was also celebrated around the date of the winter solstice.
It was celebrated by women in honor of the goddess of the harvest and agriculture, Demeter, and Dionysus, the god of wine and patron of agriculture and theater. Dionysus, like Jesus, died and was resurrected.
The festival of Haloa (Αλώα) was celebrated during the month of Poseidon in honor of the deities Demeter, Dionysus, and Poseidon. It was most famously celebrated in Eleusis, a Greek polis in Attica. Most likely, it occurred around five days after the winter solstice, which is almost the same date we celebrate Christmas today.
Haloa appears to have been a celebration of the “first fruits” of the harvest, which is unsurprising given its connection with Demeter. However, the festival also had a sexual significance.
During the festival, a bloodless sacrifice would be offered to the presiding deities. This was probably conducted in the mid-afternoon. Then the men and women in attendance would split off into separate groups.
The men would build a large bonfire whilst the women would enjoy a bawdy feast. During the feast, women would share cakes shaped like male and female genitalia, washed down with plenty of wine.
They may also have danced around phallic totems. Erotic jokes and explicit language were encouraged. Customs like these still exist in Greece. One of the most famous is ‘Bourani,’ which is celebrated during the carnival season in Tyrnavos.
Poseidon and the winter solstice
The ancient Greeks used a variety of different calendars, usually on a regional basis. The Athenians used the Attic calendar, which unlike other Greek calendars marked the beginning of the year with the lunar month of Hekatombaion in midsummer.
The eighth month of the Attic calendar was named in honor of Poseidon, the god of the sea. Poseidon’s month coincided with the modern months of December and January.
During this month, a festival was held in honor of the deity. Historians are unsure of the exact date. It may have occurred on the eighth day of Poseidon’s month or on the day of the winter solstice itself.
Historian Noel Robertson has suggested that Poseidon rather than his brother Zeus was once the chief deity in ancient Greek religion. Poseidon may have enjoyed supreme authority in some parts of the Hellenic world during the Mycenaean period, which lasted roughly between 1750 and 1050 BC.
The winter solstice would have been especially important for agriculturalists across the ancient world, including the ancient Greeks, but Poseidon was principally worshipped as the god of the sea rather than as an agricultural deity.
However, Robertson posits that Poseidon may also have been worshiped as a god of freshwater. Poseidon could have been venerated for watering the fields of Demeter, the goddess of harvest and agriculture.
Poseidon had multiple festivals throughout the year, often marked by certain seasonal changes. Not much is known about the particular festival which occurred around the winter solstice.
The festival likely involved feasting and wine. Based on ancient descriptions of other events held in Poseidon’s honor, historians can make educated guesses about the winter solstice festival.
In the Odyssey, one such festival was mentioned by Homer, who wrote, “The people were on the shore, sacrificing jet-black bulls to the blue-crested god who shakes the earth. There were nine parties, five hundred sitting in each party, and nine bulls were laid out before each.”
After sacrificing the bulls, Homer described how the festival attendants would say prayers to Poseidon, eat their share of the sacrificial animals, and drink large quantities of wine.
Influence on Christmas
Christmas is celebrated by most modern Christians just four days after the winter solstice. The ancient Greeks and many other pre-Christian European societies marked this time of the year with festivities and religious festivities.
The Hellenic world was an early center of the Christian faith. The New Testament was written in Koine Greek and Hellenic culture was present not only in Greece but across the Mediterranean world where Jesus’ disciples first traveled.
As Christianity superseded the old pagan religions, it absorbed some of their practices and festivities. Some ancient Greek winter solstice celebrations were absorbed in this way.
The birth of Dionysus was celebrated during the month of Poseidon, and some of his traits as the “divine infant” and the “Savior” were probably adapted for the Christmas tradition. Carols were even sung in honor of the infant Dionysus, perhaps providing a precedent for Christmas carols which would later emerge as a Christian tradition.