Midwinter celebrations, based around the time of the winter solstice, have been going on forever – well for a very long time, at least. Now midwinter is dominated by Christmas, but many old and ancient traditions still exist, incorporated into our modern celebrations. This is the time when the days are darkest, the wind is coldest, times when farmers can’t really work on their land – and people stay indoors a lot. A time when people need cheering up and reminding that things WILL get better.
These are some of the motifs that I use for Winterfest, the midwinter feast and celebration, in my game worlds. They are fairly general, but give a feel for the modern Holiday Season, hopefully without treading on anyone’s religious beliefs.
Decorating the house with greenery goes back a long way. Holly, Ivy, Fir Trees and European Mistletoe are evergreen, and are examples of the few green plants that can be found across Europe in the deep midwinter. They were brought inside the home as a reminder that the days were getting longer, the year would be ‘reborn’ and the growing times were coming. In medieval times there are records of wealthy people using bay leaves and other ‘exotic’ greenery to decorate their houses
Gift giving in midwinter goes back to Roman times and Odin, the king of the Norse Gods, was said to ride though the sky (as part of a hunting party) distributing gifts. St Nicolas is a late-comer to the gift giving tradition. It might not be Stockings by the Fireplace, but small interpersonal gifts were (supposedly) common – and there are records of Kings and rulers handing out significant gifts. The downside is, that recipients were expected to respond with a gift fit for a king ….
New Year is a bit of a strange one. The Romans celebrated it in the spring, others at midwinter. I can see logic in both – by spring you can clearly see that the new year is up and running. However, in the north, you can often see snow drops and other early flowers pushing through the cold, hard winter ground to brighten the world. For me, the winter solstice works best – days start to get longer, there is a bit more sun and the first plants are coming into leaf and bloom. For me, that is the start of the New Year.
Well, not just mince pies, but just about every RL area has its own special mid-winter treats and eating rituals – many based around preserved fruits. Many fruits and vegetables are harvested in the autumn (or fall) and set aside for winter. Many veggies last well through the cold months and don’t need very much special preparation – but fruit tends to go off much more quickly. So they are dried or used to make jams and pickles – which are eaten throughout the winter. Normally, they are used slowly and sparingly, so that they last for the whole of the winter – but Winterfest is a time of feasting and celebration – so we need sweet treats to make it special. And the easy motif for me to use is a Mince Pie full of sweet rich flavours. Note: Mince pies originally had meat in them – but I tend to think of them as the more modern vegetarian version.
Basically, warmed wine mixed with spices and herbs. It works equally well with ale or cider which are the rural or ‘Country’ equivalent. Originally made by heating a poker in the fire and then using the red-hot poker to ‘scald’ the wine and heat it up. In makes a warming drink all the way through the winter season – and is particularly prevalent at parties!
So if you get invited to a Winterfest party in my games world, you have a rough idea of what to expect.