By Mark Sundaram
Welcome to the Endless Knot! I hope you’re hungry, because today, in honour of the festive season, we’re sinking our teeth into the word Feast!
The word feast didn’t originally have anything to do with food. That came later. Feast actually comes from the same root as festival, and is really about religion, and we can still use the word feast in that older sense when we refer to something like the Feast of Stephen, a day in the church calendar for honouring St Stephen, which you might know about as the day on which Good King Wenceslas looked out. This is what’s called polysemy, when a word, or indeed any sign or symbol, has multiple meanings. Feast and festival came, through Old French, from the Latin word festus, which as an adjective means “of holidays, festive, solemn, merry” and as the noun festum means “a holiday, festival, feast”, and from this same root, by the way, we also get words such as fair, festoon, and fiesta. Well this Latin word can be traced back to the Proto-Indo-European root *dhes- whose meaning isn’t entirely clear but which leads to various religious, including the Greek word theos “god”, which gives us words such as theology, pantheon, and polytheism. The root may ultimately descend from Proto-Indo-European *dhe- “to set, put”. But the more common modern sense of feast, as a lavish and elaborate banquet, comes from the fact that at many religious festivals you might expect to eat and drink well.
The funny thing is though, the word banquet had kind of the opposite meaning originally. The word comes into English from French, where it was formed as a diminutive of the word banc meaning “bench”, and had the earlier sense of a small snack that you would eat on a bench rather than a full meal sitting at a table. Our word bench, unsurprisingly, is related to this, as is the word bank, in reference to a moneylender’s bench or table. All these bench related words come from the other sense of the word bank, as in a riverbank, from the idea of a man-made earthwork for sitting on that resembled a riverbank, which by the way is another example of polysemy, bank and bank. All of these words can be traced further back, through the Germanic branch to the Proto-Indo-European root *bheg- “to break”, because a bank of earth is a feature where the contour of the ground is broken.
So the banquet moved from the bench to the table, becoming an elaborate meal, which could have multiple courses. And thus we have the word dessert. Because dessert comes from French desservire, literally “to un-serve” because it involved the removal of the what had been served earlier. This is why, by the way, dessert is spelled with two <ss> since the prefix is from the Latin prefix dis- “lack of, opposite of, away”, as opposed to desert, which is a combination of the prefix de- plus the unrelated stem serere “to join”. Now the stem of dessert comes ultimately from Latin servio “to serve, be enslaved”, from the noun servus “slave”, and it’s important to remember that although we get the words serve and servant from this Latin root, Romans didn’t have servants, they had slaves. Now the further etymology of this Latin root is uncertain, with some scholars suggesting that it might be from an unknown Etruscan source (Etruscan being a long extinct and little understood language isolate in pre-Roman Italy), but it’s also been suggested that it comes from the Proto-Indo-European root *ser- meaning “to protect”, from the notion that a servus was originally a “guard” or “shepherd” but later developed the pejorative sense of “slave”. If true, then it would be related to Latin servo “to keep, preserve”, which gives us words such as conserve and preserve, as well as English hero from Greek heros “protector”. All this talk of desserts of course reminds us of the traditional Christmas pudding, and I should note that in some places, such as Britain, pudding is a general word for dessert.
But if we want to move past traditional foods to actual ritual food as part of a feast in the religious sense, perhaps the most obvious place to see this is in the ritual of the Eucharist, a rite practised in some forms of Christianity in which the priest gives the churchgoers bread and wine as part of the church service (there’s that serve root again). The Eucharist represents the body and blood of Christ, as a reflection of the Last Supper of Christ with his disciples, before he was betrayed and eventually crucified, when he said, “do this in memory of me”, and depending on which form of Christianity we’re talking about the bread and wine are thought to actually transform into flesh and blood through the process of transubstantiation. The point being that in some religious festivals and rites, food often plays a important ritual role.
Now since I’ve been throwing around the words tradition, ritual, and rite, we should probably pause to consider those terms. The word tradition comes from Latin tradere “to give up, hand over, deliver”, a compound of trans “across, to the farther side of” and dare “to give”. So a tradition is something that is “given over” from one generation to the next. So many aspects of feasts and festivals, including specific foods, can be traditional, like that Christmas pudding. And what’s more, rites and rituals are generally speaking traditional, passed down over generations. The words rite and ritual come from Latin ritus “religious observance, ceremony”, which is traceable back to the Proto-Indo-European root *re- “to reason, count”, also the source of words such as reason and arithmetic, and is a variant of the root *ar- “to fit together”, also the source of words such as harmony, art, and order. Rites or rituals can be tied to seasonal or cyclical events, like planting and harvesting or the cycles of the sun and moon, they can be tied to contingent events like marriage, birth or death, or they may involve initiations or rites of passage. And specifically we can talk about rites of feasting and festivals, which include things such as Christmas and other festivals that take place around midwinter, like winter solstice and New Year celebrations.
Now anthropologists look at lot at ritual, specifically in the context of religion and myth. Going back to that example of Jesus and the rite of the Eucharist, we can see that the ritual is basically reenacting a story from the Bible, in that case the death and rebirth of Jesus, what’s called a dying-god pattern found in many religions around the world in which a god dies and is reborn often allowing for some kind of renewal. And many festivals involve some kind of reenactment of a traditional story or myth. The early mythologist Sir James Frazer, in landmark book The Golden Bough, saw this kind of ritual reenactment of a dying god myth as representing fertility rites, though it should be noted that Frazer’s theories have come under much criticism, mostly due to lack of evidence.
Let’s look at another example of a ritual that involves feasting, the potlatch, a kind of gift-giving feast practised by the Indigenous peoples of the pacific northwest coast of Canada and the US. The word potlatch comes from the Chinook Jargon pátlač “to give, a gift”, from the Nootka word pa'chatle “to give”, and depending on which First Nation you look at the specific details differ, however, basically a potlatch could be tied to a particular contingent event like births or weddings and would involve competitive gift-giving in order to enhance one’s prestige, and could be a major element of the economic system. Interestingly, the word potlatch may be connected with the word potluck. Though potluck probably comes from a combination of the words pot and luck and not the word potlatch itself, it’s possible potlatch influenced the modern sense of potluck or conversely the modern sense of the word potluck led to the colloquial use of the word potlatch with the same sense. You see, originally potluck referred to an impromptu meal thrown together with whatever was available to feed an unexpected guest, so it was the luck of whatever was in the pot. But now we use the word potluck to refer to a communal meal in which the guests each bring a homemade element of the meal, which is referred to in Alaska as a potlatch. Now sometimes a Christmas party can involve potluck contributions from guests, and so for the purposes of our story today, we’ll turn to the various midwinter festivals, like Christmas, and the role feasting plays in them.
Midwinter festivals, at least in cultures of the northern hemisphere, are quite common. Christmas itself lies in the centre of a whole season of festivals, some religious and some secular, that is sometimes referred to as Christmastide. In fact the date of Christmas itself is a kind of uncertain thing, insofar as the celebration of the birth of Jesus is concerned. As we’ll see, it probably has little to do with any historical date. There’s nothing in the Bible that provides any direct evidence for any sort of date. Early guesses often placed it in the spring, probably for symbolic reasons as a time of birth. The fourth century Roman calligrapher Furius Dionysius Filocalus gives us the earliest mention of the date December 25th, alongside the dates of various pre-Christian Roman festivities, so a long time after the events it refers to. All kinds of justifications for this were suggested over the years such as the belief that the crucifixion took place on March 25th and since Jesus must have been on earth a perfect number of years (because of course), working in nine months of pregnancy after conception on March 25th gives us December 25th. But the reality is that Pope Julius I just declared it so in the middle of the fourth century, and probably because there were a bunch of other festivals at that time of year in Rome, and why not piggyback on an already successful thing, amirite! This kind of blending of traditions is called syncretism, and we’ll be seeing a number of examples of this.
Now there are other feast days in Christmastide, for instance the Feast of Stephen which we mentioned before. Stephen was the very first Christian martyr, with his story being told in the Acts of the Apostles in the New Testament. Basically he got on the bad side of Jewish authorities because of his blasphemous teachings, and was eventually stoned to death, so in Christian art he is often depicted with three stones sitting on him. Interestingly for our purposes, St Stephen’s Day has become associated with a distinctly unchristian ritual, Wren Day or Hunt the Wren, in various Celtic parts of the British Isles. Basically it involves the ritualized hunting of the wren, later a fake wren on top of a pole, with mummers dressed in straw suits, referred to as strawboys or wrenboys, celebrating and singing, and collecting money. This is one example of a widespread midwinter tradition of ritualized begging or otherwise earning hospitality at this time of year, which survives today in the form of Christmas carollers, and often also involved misrule in the form of disguises and the breaking of traditional societal norms. Mummers, by the way, are revellers who often perform little comic plays, often as street performances or going door-to-door. One typical plot involves a doctor who has a magic potion capable of reviving a vanquished character. Sir James Frazer, in one of his frequent leaps of imagination, saw this mummers play story as a descendant of pre-Christian fertility rituals. Now at this point you may be asking, why a wren? Well there’s a Christian folktale that God, wanting to find out who was the king of the birds, set up a contest to see which bird could fly highest and furthest. It looked like the eagle was about to win, but when the eagle finally started to tire, the treacherous wren, who had been hiding under the eagle’s wing somehow, suddenly soared off an won the honour. Now why God would need to run a contest is not really explained, and this may just be a rationalization, and another example of syncretism. Instead, the ritual, though only recorded from the late 17th century, might come from a pre-Christian source. The wren is the smallest bird native to Europe, and killing one was normally held as either wicked or unlucky, so having a day on which you were allowed to hunt wrens is another example of misrule and ritual reversal, and we’ll see more of these associated with the midwinter season. What’s more, the wren was a symbol of the past year in Celtic mythology, since it would still sing in midwinter, and the Old Irish name for the bird means “druid-bird”, so Wren Day may in fact descend from Samhain or Celtic midwinter animal sacrifice rituals. By the way, Sir James Frazer similarly took this as an example of the sacrifice of an animal normally considered to be sacred at an annual festival. There’s also a story told in the Isle of Man in which a beautiful fairy lures men to their drowning in a river, who when challenged by the people, transforms into a wren and escapes, as well as stories about wrens betraying Irish soldiers who were fighting against Viking invaders by tapping on their shields, and similarly betraying that martyr St Stephen we started with.
But getting back to examples of syncretism, perhaps the most famous connection made between Christmas and a pagan festival is with the Roman festival Saturnalia. There’s no shortage of YouTube videos, podcasts, and blogposts about the relationship between Saturnalia and Christmas, so I won’t repeat all that, but for our purposes in looking at the relationship between feasts, festivals, and food, there are a few things worth pointing out. So Saturnalia was celebrated on December 17th and later ran through to the 23rd, thus spanning the winter solstice. It was preceded by the month-long Brumalia winter/harvest festival, which takes its name from Latin brevis “short” in reference to the gradual shortening of days leading up to the solstice. Saturnalia was held in honour of the Roman agricultural god Saturn, and was heavily influenced by the Greek festival Cronia and the god Cronus, also a god of agriculture. Saturn was associated with the harvest, and was held to have been in charge during a golden age in which humans lived in a world of bounteous abundance and equality, and so not only did Saturnalia feature much feasting, but also role reversal, in which masters waited on their slaves, and slaves or other lower status people might be able to insult or order about their social betters. It should be remembered though that afterwards people went back to their normal roles, so this breaking of boundaries really served to define those boundaries. Other aspects of misrule were also a feature, including pranks and legal gambling, as was gift giving, of either gag gifts or gifts of candles, perhaps representing the solstice as a time of the longest night and the lengthening of the days henceforth. Because of an odd, and yet in many ways appropriate, phonological similarity, the Greek god Cronus, father of Zeus, became associated with Chronos, the personification of time. There is in fact a logical connection there because a god of agriculture would obviously be connected to the seasons, from which humans gain their perception of the passage of time. In any case, from this blending we get the figure of Father Time, often depicted at New Year, with his agricultural implement the sickle or scythe. Another modern echo of Saturnalia may lie in the office Christmas party, which not only features a slackening of normal business place hierarchies and bosses often serving out food to their employees. Not that I recommend you take the opportunity to tell your boss what you really think of them! In the period of the later Roman Empire, in what was perhaps an even stronger influence on the date of Christmas, was the celebration of the Dies Natalis Solis Invictis or Day of Birth of the Unconquered Sun, celebrated on December 25th. In another example of syncretism, this worship of the sun god was absorbed from the older Syrian cult of the Unconquered Sun during the 220s and made official under the emperor Aurelian in 274. After Christianity was officially declared the state religion of the Roman Empire, there seems to have been a shift in celebrating the birthday of the sun god to the birthday of the son of god, if you’ll excuse the anachronistic pun which doesn’t work at all in Latin.
So with all these winter festivals clustering around the winter solstice, let’s have a look at the solstice itself. The solstice is of course a precisely measurable day, when the sun is directly overhead at noon, so it’s not surprising that many cultures have some sort of festival or ritual associated with it. The word solstice means literally “sun standing still” from Latin sol “sun” and sistere “to stand still”, a reduplicative form of stare “to stand”, because the sun appears to rise and set in the same places for a few days around the solstice. The solstice of course also marks the longest night of the year, with the days getting progressively longer afterwards, so many traditions celebrate it as the return of the sun, by lighting candles or bonfires (and remember the gift of candles in Saturnalia). Many stone monuments in the British Isles, such as Stonehenge in England and Newgrange in Ireland, are aligned so that the rising sun at the winter solstice appears through a particular aperture. And the game snapdragon played at least since the 17th century, in which a tray or shallow bowl of warm brandy with raisins in it is set alight, and participants are to snatch the raisins out of the flames and eat them, is often played around the solstice or Christmas. Furthermore, given that the solstice marks the winter season, when times are cold and harsh and food is about to become scarce, having a big feast makes a lot of sense. The winter season follows the harvest, and it is also a time of animal slaughter, when you would kill excess animals so you didn’t have to feed them all through the winter. Now some of that food would be preserved, but it makes sense to have a bunch of it right away while it’s fresh. And you might want to make sacrifices to the gods to make sure the food supply is good in the year to come when it’s growing and breeding season again. And in particularly cold regions you might decorate with the few plants that remain green in the winter, like conifers, holly, and mistletoe, as a symbol of life and rebirth. And we’ve already seen those myths and rituals associated with gods who die and are reborn, particularly relevant at the time of the rebirth of the year.
Another example of just such a midwinter festival which has influenced our modern Christmas traditions is the Germanic festival called Yule, a name now used to refer to Christmas itself, and if you want to see more specifics about Yule, you can have a look at our Christmas video from a few years ago. I won’t repeat all of that here, but there are a few elements I want to draw attention to. Yule, or Geol in Old English, seems to have encompassed the entire period, with Geolmonaþ being equivalent to both December and January. It seems to have involved the slaughtering of livestock, probably including sacrifices, which may survive in the tradition of the Christmas ham, as well as the beer produced from the grain harvest. The month before Yule was blotmonaþ “sacrifice month” or blodmonaþ “blood month”, corresponding to November, and suggesting animal sacrifice in the midwinter season. The word blot, meaning “sacrifice” in both Old English and Old Norse, is related to the word blood as well as to the word bless, coming ultimately from a Proto-Indo-European root *bhel- “to blow, swell”. In Norse tradition there were a number of blots associated with this time of year. There was the dísablót in honour of the Dísir, possibly originally fertility goddesses but later becoming more generalized, along with the Valkyrie, which was a more public festival held at the beginning of the winter season, known as Winter Nights, along with álfablót or “elven sacrifice” which was a more private ritual held in the home excluding strangers. Later on in the winter season, there was Þorrablót held at midwinter, which seems to originally have been a sacrifice to Thor, but later was reinterpreted as involving Þorri, the personification of frost. This tradition was revived in the 19th and 20th centuries, particularly in Iceland, as a celebration of traditional Icelandic cuisine, referred to as þorramatur, consisting of various cured meats and fish served with dense dark rye bread, including pressed rams testicles and seal flippers cured in lactic acid and fermented shark, all consumed with copious amounts of brennivín, a kind of Icelandic aquavit. Such is the strong associations with traditional foods in these kinds of ritual festivities. In Anglo-Saxon England on December 24 was the Modraniht or “mothers night”. We don’t know much about this festival, aside from a brief reference from the undoubtedly biased Christian monk Bede, but it has been speculated that it might be connected with the Scandinavian Dísir or Germanic/Celtic Matres and Matronae or “mothers and matrons” that were venerated in Northwestern Europe, with votives and altars depicting the three deities in the first to fifth centuries.
For a different take on a midwinter festival, the Inuit tradition Quviasugvik has a different kind of tie to seasonal food production, marking the beginning of the hunting season. Quviasugvik, meaning literally “time of happiness” from quviasuk- “to be happy”, occurs around late fall, early winter, or at the winter solstice, and though traditions differ, it frequently involves shamans known as anggakuit entering a hut in the evening and offering prayers for the community and to propitiate the spirits of the dead and the goddess of the sea, Sedna. Again, there are different versions of the story, with different motivations, but one way or another Sedna is cast overboard into the water by her father who then chops off her fingers so she lets go of the kayak which she’s clinging to, and the fingers become seals and other marine animals that the Inuit hunt, and Sedna becomes the goddess of the sea and marine animals. Because Sedna is a vengeful figure she must be placated in order to have a good hunting season. On the following day after the prayers, the whole community would participate in various rituals, including a tug-of-war with a sealskin rope with two teams designated as the ducks and ptarmigans, and if the ducks win the weather will be fine through the winter, but if the ducks lose it means a long and difficult winter. There is also a ritual in which everyone sits in a circle around a container of water, with each eating their meat at the same time while wishing for good tidings from Sedna, and then each in turn from the oldest to the youngest scooping a drink of water from the middle and stating the time and place of their birth. Today, in the Iñupiaq language, quviasugvik is now used to mean “holiday”, and in Arctic Quebec and Labrador quviasuvvik refers to Christmas, no doubt reflecting the suppression of indigenous cultures by the Canadian colonial government.
In another example of a differing climate and food production season, the ancient Greeks held a festival in honour of the gods Poseidon, Demeter, and Dionysus at the winter solstice. The winter setting is a while after the grain harvest, which would have been more appropriate for Demeter, goddess of agriculture, but timely for the grape harvest, as Dionysus was associated with wine. Again, the specifics differed from city to city, as do the names of the festivals. At Eleusis the festival was called Haloea from the Greek word halos meaning “threshing floor” where the edible part of the grain is separated from the chaff, an appropriate location for Demeter, with the men and women separated on the first night. The women celebrated inside with copious wine and food, and especially with cakes in the shape of genitalia, both male and female. They would hold up either these cakes or other symbols of genitalia, engage in lewd banter, and the priestesses would tease them by whispering in their ears about promiscuity. The men outside would light bonfires, that common element of light in the darkness of the winter solstice. In another version of the festival called Peloria, a great feast was held with tables heaped with food, at which strangers were welcomed, prisoners were freed, and slaves were served by their masters, much like the Roman Saturnalia. These are the basic common elements of all the versions of this festival: excessive feasting, reversal of social norms, and especially scurrilous conduct with the men and women separated at first and then coming together the next day to engage in lewd banter with each other. And the symbolism of Poseidon, one of the most lustful gods, who reigned over not only the ocean but also inland streams, suggested male potency, watering the fertile fields, associated with Demeter, thus ensuring successful crops in the new year.
And speaking of the new year, it is thus not surprising that the turning of the year is often (though admittedly not always) around the time of the winter solstice, with the year being divided into appropriate seasons.
The word season is actually directly connected to agriculture. Season comes through Old French from the Latin word serere “to sow, plant”, which is not at all related to the verb serere “to join” that we saw before as lying behind the word desert, so there’s another example of polysemy for you. It ultimately comes from the Proto-Indo-European root *se- “to sow” which also gives us the word seed through the Germanic branch. So a season was originally a time for sowing seeds, and later broadened to refer to other important times in the agricultural year.
Winter is a Germanic word. Its deeper etymology is not entirely certain. It might come from the Proto-Indo-European root *weid- “to see” which came into the Celtic languages with the sense “white”, in which case winter is “the white season”. But more likely it comes from the root *wed- meaning “water, wet”, which also gives us the words water and wet, in which case winter is “the wet season”. Depending on the climate where you live, you may have differing opinions about this etymology! But this word is not the usual Indo-European word for this season. Proto-Indo-European *ghei- means “winter”, and produces Latin hiem meaning “winter”, as well as the verb hiberno “to pass the winter” from which English gets the words hibernate and hibernation, which may have first been used to refer specifically to the winter dormancy period of animals by Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of evolutionist Charles. That same Proto-Indo-European root lies behind the name Himalaya, along with the root *(s)lei- “sticky”, so literally “the place where snow sticks or stays”, and through Greek kheima “winter weather, cold, frost” gives us the mythical animal chimera meaning literally “year-old she-goat” from the notion of counting years in winters. But I don’t think you’ll see Santa’s sleigh being pulled by chimeras!
Now of course there are two solstices in the yea,r the winter and the summer, and it’s been argued that Old English and other Germanic languages may have originally had a two-season system, with Old English winter and sumor. The word summer and Old English sumor come therefor from a common Germanic root which is traceable back to the Proto-Indo-European root *sem- “summer”, with a variety of descendants in other Indo-European languages meaning either “summer” or sometimes “season” or “year”. It comes into Irish as sam meaning “sun, summer” and may lie behind Samhain meaning something like “summer’s end”, the Irish harvest festival that may have influenced Halloween, unless it comes from a different root *sem- meaning “together”.
Certainly as we have the seasons now, there is a division into four. Between winter and summer is spring, whose etymology is exactly what it sounds like, the springing of the year when the plants begin to rise from the ground, and by the way you can compare this with the spring of water from the ground. This word is traceable back to the Proto-Indo-European root *spergh- “to move, hasten, spring”, and though the verb springan is found in Old English, spring as a name for the season didn’t occur until around 1400. Before that, the season was referred to with the Old English word lencten, later shortened to lent, a word that was later adopted to refer to the 40 days of abstemiousness leading up to Easter in the Christian calendar, in which, among other things, Christians are supposed to abstain from particularly lavish foods. The word originally had nothing to do with Christianity though, and was just a seasonal word, coming from the Germanic elements *langaz “long”, from which we get the word long, and *tina- “day”, ultimately from the Proto-Indo-European root *dyeu- “shine”, which also led to the Latin word dies “day”, thus giving us the English words diary and diurnal, but is surprisingly unrelated to the English word day, which comes instead from the Proto-Indo-European root *agh- meaning “day”. So the idea of the season Lent is that the days are growing longer, leading up to the summer solstice.
Now before the Christian period of Lent, which begins on Ash Wednesday, is Fat Tuesday, also known by its French equivalent Mardi Gras, or simply Carnival. The word carnival probably literally means “flesh-raising” or in other words the “removal of meat” because during Lent meat is one of those lavish foods often given up. So Fat Tuesday / Mardi Gras or Carnival is the last chance to enjoy meat (think carnivore) and fatty foods for a while, and also features a number of other excesses and reversal rituals in which you can flout the normal boundaries of society. There was a medieval folk etymology that carnival meant “flesh farewell” from Latin vale “goodbye”, but in fact the etymons in question are caro “flesh”, originally a “piece of flesh” and levare “to lighten, raise, remove”. That first element caro is kind of interesting, as it goes back to the Proto-Indo-European root *(s)ker- meaning “to cut”, hence that meaning of “piece of flesh”. This root also gives us the word share, from the notion of cutting something up into portions, which is something you might do with your food. This root may also lead to another root *kerp- “to gather, pluck, or harvest”, which led to the Latin word carpere “pick, pluck”. This Latin word is perhaps most famous from the phrase carpe diem, usually translated as “seize the day”, but the metaphor at work there is really a harvesting metaphor, like “harvest your crops when they’re ripe before they go bad!” When prefixed with Latin ex- “out of”, carpere eventually gives us the word scarce, which develops from the sense of being “plucked out” and therefore “rare”, and meat and other foods might well be scarce after the harvest season and into the lean winter months. Another word we get from Proto-Indo-European *kerp-, through the Germanic branch, is harvest, and Old English hærfest was the original English term for the season between summer and winter.
By the 14th century, harvest in this sense began to be replaced by autumn, which came into English through Old French from Latin autumnus meaning “autumn”. Earlier etymology than that is uncertain, with most dismissing it as coming from another one of those unknown Etruscan sources, though one Latin etymologist posits that it might mean “drying-up season” and giving the root as *auq-, or perhaps *saus- “dry”, a root which not only gives us the words sear and sere through the Germanic branch, but also austere, through Greek and Latin. The Romans themselves connected the word to the verb augere “to increase”, and though it may not come from that source it may have been influenced by it. Whatever the case, we also have the word fall, from the idea of the leaves falling from the trees, and though some Brits dismiss this as an Americanism, fall first appeared in British English in the 1660s, a shortening of the expression fall of the leaf from the 1540s, and was preserved in American English though later dropped in British English.
And those are the seasons of the year. As for the word year itself, it comes from a Proto-Indo-European time word *yer- “year” or “season”, but also comes into English through Greek hora “season, time of day” giving us the word hour. This root may be traceable further back to the root *ei- meaning “to go” from the notion of time proceeding, in which case it would appropriately be cognate with the word January, the first month of the year. Except it wasn’t always. In the original ten month Roman calendar, the year began with March (the month of the god of war Mars according to the Romans), which is why December literally means the tenth month, even though we now count it as the twelfth, the name just stuck. In the old Roman calendar December was followed by a bunch of days that didn’t belong to any month, before the next month of March started again, but later on those extra days were organized into the months of January and February. January comes from the word ianus “archway” and the name Ianus (or Janus as he’s now called), god of doorways and of the beginning of the year, who is usually depicted with two faces pointing in opposite directions, thus looking forwards and backwards and symbolizing both beginnings and endings. By the way, we also get the word janitor from this word, as Latin ianitor meant “doorkeeper” as the word janitor in English originally did before broadening in meaning to “caretaker of a building” in the 18th century. In the feast called Kalendae, sacred to Janus, which ran from January 1st to 3rd, the Romans engaged in feasting and merrymaking, as well as the exchange of gifts thought to bring good luck in the coming year, gifts of figs, honey, pastry, and coins.
Today the most common New Year tradition is fireworks, as well as other types of noisemakers, and I should note at this point that the word bang comes into English from Old Norse banga “to pound, hammer” (perhaps reminding us of Thor’s famous hammer), ultimately from the Proto-Indo-European root *bheg- “to break” which we saw before as lying behind the word banquet. And speaking of noisemakers, they also make an appearance at Christmas in the form of Christmas crackers, traditional accompaniments to Christmas dinner. These were originally called bon-bons, invented, so the story goes, by one Tom Smith of London a sweets manufacturer, and you can see the similarity in the appearance of Christmas crackers and candy wrappers. When his sweets started to become less popular, he began to include other things like love messages and trinkets, and got the idea of adding the crack when he notice a log he had thrown on the fire crackling. These then started to be marketed as Cosaques in reference to the Russian soldiers known as Cossacks because of the sound of their cracking whips or gunfire. The paper hats that we now find in Christmas crackers are said to be a holdover of an old Saturnalian tradition.
Of course the celebration of New Year hasn’t always been popular or encouraged. Medieval Christians downplayed it as being kind of pagan, with for instance the Anglo-Saxon Archbishop Wulfstan of York condemning “the nonsense which is performed on New Year’s Day in various kinds of sorcery”. In Scotland of the 17th century, radical Protestants stamped out all the merrymaking associated with Christmas as being too Papist, which then became part of their secular New Year tradition called Hogmanay. The dour Scottish Protestants then condemned Hogmanay, but the tradition continued. The origin of the word Hogmanay is much debated, but what is clear is that it certainly doesn’t come from a Celtic root. Most likely it comes from Old French aguillanneuf a contraction of accueillis l’an neuf “welcome the new year”. The most famous rituals of Hogmanay include first-footing, in which a tall dark man carrying coal must be the first to cross the threshold in the New Year in order to bring good luck. Also the tradition of singing Robert Burns’s Auld Lang Syne at the stroke of midnight has become a general New Year tradition not just for Hogmanay. The oft misunderstood Scots title of the song can be translated literally into English as “old long since” or in other words “old times” or “days gone by”. The word syne, cognate with since, comes from Old English siððan “afterwards, hereafter” from the Proto-Indo-European root *se- meaning “long, late”, which may be related to the other Proto-Indo-European root *se- meaning “to sow” which as we’ve seen gives us the word season.
Now getting back to the concept we started with, polysemy, the word season has another sense, one more directly related to food, seasoning as in ingredients you add to food to add flavour, such as salt, spices, and herbs. So how do we get from seasons of the year to seasoning in our food? Well it comes from the idea of ripening food such as fruit to make it more palatable, so seasoning food by adding flavourings to it is akin to seasoning food by ripening it.
And that brings us back to where we started with food and feasting. The tradition of having a Christmas ham may go back to the Germanic Yule boar or Sonargöltr in Old Norse, meaning “sacrificial boar”, which was sacrificed in the sónar-blót (there’s that sacrifice word again), part of the Yule feast. There was a ritual involved called the Heitstrenging in which oaths were taken, often after considerable feasting and drinking, with hands laid on the bristles of the boar. The boar was associated with the Norse fertility god Freyr, and it was customary to sacrifice a boar as part of the pagan Yule celebration to ensure fertility in the coming year. This is reflected in the song “The Boar’s Head Carol”. And as we’ve already seen, slaughtering most of your livestock before winter makes good sense, since then you don’t have to feed them all when food is scarce, and a new set of animals will be born in the spring.
The other traditional meat served at Christmas is the roast goose, which may be tied to the English harvest festival of St. Martin’s Day or Martinmas, which falls on Nov. 11, and which picked up its elements of feasting and harvest celebration in addition to its religious elements after the fact, because of its timing. It’s connected with eating goose, though, because of a story about its eponymous saint, Martin of Tours, who upon hearing that he was to be made a bishop and not wanting the job, tried to hide in a goose pen until the cackling of the geese gave him away. This feast day, interestingly, has further connections to Carnival, as Martinmas is often seen as a mini-carnival coming before the abstemious period of Advent, itself seen as a mini version of lent, leading up to Christmas.
Now whether you’re feasting on goose or ham, celebrating the festivals of midwinter or Christmastide, seasoning your banquet for the festivities of the solstice, or in any way marking the turning of the seasons, I hope this video has brought some light to the darkness.
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