Saturday, December 22, 2007

Theatre and the Winter Solstice

Posted by Bruce Miller
The Winter Solstice—that about-face moment when days stop becoming shorter and begin becoming longer, that 24-hour period when the sun’s arc across the sky shows just how low it can go before it starts to ascend again, that astrological promise of rebirth—has been celebrated by every culture worldwide since prehistoric times.

In the Northern Hemisphere, the winter solstice takes place between December 20 and 23, depending on where exactly on the planet you stand. In the Southern Hemisphere, it occurs sometime between those same dates in June.

Stonehenge in England and Brú na Bóinne in Ireland were both erected, at least in part, as
giant clocks to enable local residents to “read” the sun’s rays and know precisely when the winter solstice would arrive. In their ancient cultures, the winter solstice marked the time of the final feasts before the “starvation months” of deep winter began. Most cattle were slaughtered because there would not be enough to feed them during the winter, making this the one time during the year when fresh meat was available. Also, winter solstice marked the end of the fermentation period for the wine and beer that had been brewing since late spring.

The Christian holiday of Christmas was set on Dec 25 not because anyone knows that to be the actual date of Christ’s birth—no one does—but because Dec 25 was the recorded date of the winter solstice throughout Europe under the Julian calendar that held sway during the first several centuries AD. In fact, the Catholic Church banned the celebration of Christmas in December for centuries, believing it to be a pagan practice. It is only in the last several hundred years that Christians have universally embraced the celebration of Christ’s Mass in December, while assimilating numerous pagan rituals (the Christmas tree, yule log, etc.) into its folklore.

In Jewish culture, Tekufah Tevet is the winter solstice recognized by the writers of the Talmud. Ancient Jews believed that water kept in vessels during Tekufah Tevet, or any of the other solstices for that matter, would turn into poison and therefore must be thrown out. Among many Jews today, such dark superstitions have taken a back seat to Hanukkah, the Festival of Light.

In nearly every culture, theatre has always been a part of the festivities surrounding winter solstice. The Roman Saturnalia and Greek Poseidonia were two of the most prominent ancient winter solstice celebrations. It was during these festivals that the Greek satyr plays and the copycat Roman fabula (comoedia) palliata (stories in Greek dress) launched their ascendancies into popular culture. A Greek satyr play is pictured in the detail from an early 5th century wine bowl posted above and to the right.

These comedies highlighted role reversals among servants and masters and males and females, and explored just what might happen if social order were to suddenly turn on its ear. The comic debauchery that frequently ensued was meant to echo what might take place during that time of year when the nights were longest and the cover of darkness was most effective.

These Greek and Roman plays paved the way for the Commedia dell’Arte movement that changed the face of world theatre beginning in Italy in the 15th century. A recent commedia production of Goldoni's A Servant of Two Masters at the University of Minnesota is pictured to the left.
Our holiday productions of Scapino! in 2005 and Moonlight and Magnolias (running now through January 20, 2008) are actually perfectly in sync with the cultural history of winter solstice.

And what could be better than a few good laughs to get you through the cold nights of winter?

So as you celebrate your winter solstice holiday, why not do as the Romans did, and go to the theatre just for the fun of it.

--Bruce Miller

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I never knew any of this before, but it seems so right that comedy was born during that time of year when the days were short. The older I get - and I'm not that old - the more I look for something, anything to make me laugh in the winter. Great commentary!