The Empire is a northern nation, analogous to Britain or northern Europe. In common with its real-world cultures, Midwinter is a time of celebration.
“…Midwinter’s Eve being a traditional time of fun and feasting. I thought about the games and song and food I would miss tonight in the meeting hall at Tirvan. Even the littlest babies came, and toddlers fell asleep on benches or the floor as the night progressed.”
While religion is a background element in Empire’s Daughter, not a component of the plot, its world would not have felt real to me without including some acknowledgements of how its culture marked the turning points of the year, especially Midwinter. The darkest days of the year and the rebirth of the sun – far enough north, that’s literally true, as the sun disappears for several weeks – have been marked by cultures around the world: by Jul, or Yule in pre-Christian Germany and Scandinavia; by Saturnalia in Roman culture, and in the cult of the Roman ‘soldier’s god’, Mithras, as the birth of the Unconquered Sun. It is this god that the Emperor Callan addresses when he says “The god of soldiers receive you, my brother, or I will know the reason why when I stand before him myself.”
So, both the women’s villages and the military celebrate Midwinter, although the women’s celebrations have more in common with Jul, and the military’s with Mithraic ritual. The Empire’s tradition of making major proclamations at Midwinter, however, is based on the later Christmas Courts of the monarchs of England, when many political decisions (including coronations, notably of William the Conqueror) occurred (but not necessarily so formally as at the Emperor’s Winter Camp proclamations).
And here it is December 21st….at home in Tirvan, Lena would be partying at the Meeting Hall, eating and drinking, dancing and singing. The Jul log, a massive root, would be burning in the hearth, the fire started with a piece of last year’s log. Some of the women would stay awake until dawn, to greet the newly-born sun.
The military too has its Saturnalia: food and drink, dance and song, which Lena is happy to participate in, but somewhere outside the camp, a more secret ritual is taking place, acknowledging the birth of the soldier’s god. (This is neither mentioned nor described in the book, by the way, as it had no place in the story. But likely both Casyn and Callan are there. Turlo? Probably not. I think he’s out on the hills with Pan, personally.)
Of course, Midwinter is a plot device, in that it is a turning point in the year, and a turning point in the story, for both the Empire and for Lena. The book begins roughly on May 1, May Day, Beltane, traditionally the day when young women can see their future husbands by various divinations (or, in the book, meet the man who will change their lives) and ends at Midwinter and the dawning of a new year.
The land has its rhythms and pacings, its periods of calm and its periods of change, reflected and acknowledged in the rituals and celebrations of pre-Christian northern Europe, which in turn provides the background structure to the action in Empire’s Daughter. Did I set out to do this, consciously? No. It seems that my own internal rhythms, which are set far more by the natural world than by the artificial calendar we have imposed upon it, simply insinuated themselves into the writing. That doesn’t surprise me: so much of what we write comes from places inside us we barely know.
Blessed Yule, Happy Solstice, Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Joyous Kwanzaa. (If I’ve left your celebration out, it’s due to me not knowing about it, not a deliberate oversight, and I wish you joy.)
Sunrise photo: By Fabolu (selbst aufgenommen von Fabolu) [GFDL 1.2 (http://www.gnu.org/licenses/old-licenses/fdl-1.2.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons