For a variety of reasons, the birth story of Jesus may not be something that you personally embrace or want to celebrate with friends and family.
Fortunately, the need to celebrate life and light at the darkest time of the year is something that long predates Christianity, and many of the yummy and playful customs of the season are rooted in cultures that have merged and morphed and been shared freely for millennia. Here are twelve traditions with ancient roots. If they have been adopted and adapted by those who choose this time of year to celebrate the birth of Christianity and so the birth of some of Christendom’s darker angels, don’t let that put you off. They can just as easily be adopted and adapted by those who have moved beyond belief.
- Celebrating the End of December.
All across the Northern Hemisphere our ancestors marked the winter solstice with festivals that acknowledge the cycle of life: death and birth, darkness and light. For cold, lean people it may have seemed like the sun might never reappear. Yet, a few days after solstice the days began to visibly lengthen, promising another spring. Persephone would return from Hades; King Winter would be beaten! Pagan Scandinavia celebrated Yule, the great turning of the wheel of life. The Roman Pope Julius 1 chose December 25 to honor the birthday of Jesus because it already hosted two related festivals of birth: natalis solis invicti (“birth of the unconquered sun”), and the birthday of Mithras, the “Sun of Righteousness.” Today, mid-winter celebrations in the month of December include the Buddhist Bodhi Day (December 8); Hannukah (December 8); Solstice itself, which has many names; Hindu Pancha Ganapati (December 21-25); Festivus (December 23), Kwanzaa (December 26-January 1), New Years Eve, and of course, Hogmanay.
- Candles & Lights
Since ancient times, man-made lights have symbolized the light of the sun and the promise of brighter days to come. We are told that pagan Romans decorated living trees with fragments of metal and images of the fertility god Bacchus. Twelve candles on a tree honored the sun god. The writings of one early Church father, Tertullian, discuss early Christians who imitated their neighbors by decorating their homes with candles and laurel at the turn of the year. In the North of Europe, Germanic people honored Woden by tying candles to evergreen branches, along with fruit. The Jewish festival of Hanukkah, a time of remembering, is centered on the menorah and is also called the Festival of Lights.
For many Pagan peoples of Europe, evergreen trees were symbols of enduring life. Their branches had the power to fend off evil spirits. Druids held ceremonies while gathered around sacred trees. Cutting entire trees and bringing them indoors may have been too destructive, but we know that Pagans brought in evergreen boughs. Because trees are so strongly associated with Pagan celebrations some Christians have opposed them being a part of Christmas festivities. The first record of a decorated Christmas tree dates to 1521, in Germany. At the time, a prominent Lutheran minister protested: “Better that they should look to the true tree of life, Christ.” But the appeal of evergreen branches indoors is so universal that it has since been adopted through much of Christianity and into some homes for the celebration of the Jewish Hanukkah.
In Scandinavia, the traditional Yule wreath symbolized the “Wheel of the Year,” which was also honored around the calendar with festivals marking winter and summer solstice and each equinoxes. Some ancient groups believed that the great wheel stopped turning at the point of the winter solstice and so it was taboo to turn a butter churn or wheel on the shortest day of the year. For Germanic people, wreaths decorated with small candles encouraged the return of spring: the circle of the wreath representing the seasons, and the candles representing warmth from the sun. When made of holly and ivy, a wreath was thought to provide protection to any household where it hung on the door.
Given his ethnic roots, Santa Claus should be a symbol of multi-culturalism! His familiar form and story have been shaped most recently by 19th Century American and European media and marketers including the Bon Marche Department Store in Liverpool, Disney Studios, and Coca-Cola. They in turn drew on Scandinavian images of elves with red tunics and pointed hats, with sleighs and reindeer. Before that, the Italian/Greek/Spanish/Turkish story of St. Nicholas and the Germanic god Odin appear to have merged to create the Dutch figure, Sinterklaas, who rides through the sky on a white horse. His mischievous black-faced helpers listen at the chimneys to help him figure out whether children have been bad or good.
The magical status of Mistletoe goes so far back that it is lost in the mist of history. It played a role in Greek mythology and was likely the Golden Bough in the story of Aeneas. Across pagan Europe it was seen as a sacred symbol of male vitality and fertility. In one Norse story the goddess Frigga extracts a promise from each element and plant that it will not harm her son Balder, the god of the summer sun. But she overlooks the mistletoe, which lives not on the earth nor in the sky, but in between, in the arms of oak trees. The evil god Loki makes an arrow tip out of Mistletoe and gives it to Hoder, the blind god of winter, who kills Balder. For three days the other gods try in vain to restore him to life. Finally Frigga succeeds. Some versions of the story say that her tears turn into the mistletoe’s white berries and that afterwards Frigga kisses anyone who passes beneath a branch on which mistletoe grows.
As Christianity spread across Europe, the red berries and spiny leaves of the holly plant became spiritual symbols representing the red blood of Jesus and his crown of thorns. But as with many other holiday favorites, Holly already had special meaning for local people. The familiar Christmas carol, “The Holly and the Ivy” contains vestiges of Celtic tradition in which a males and females were dressed in Holly and Ivy leaves and enacted a dance or ritual representing male and female energy. In the mythology of the British Isles, the Holly King was said to rule over the waning half of the year, from the summer solstice to the winter solstice, whereupon he fought with the Oak King, who ruled the season of planting and growth. In fact, the Holly King may be the Green Knight who Sir Gawain rose to fight at King Arthur’s Christmas feast.
The Roman feast of Saturnalia lasted from December 17 through the 23. Picture a week-long progressive party in which normal roles are relaxed or reversed. At various times and places, white togas were replaced with colorful Greek garments, slaves dined with or before masters, and debauchery was widespread. But most of all, people ate. They ate at public banquets and private parties. Slaves ate foods normally reserved for the wealthy, and everyone ate well. Saturnalia recreated a mythical past in which bounty was the norm and all were free to indulge. The festival was popular enough that it may well have shaped early Christmas celebrations.
But the reality is that happy humans feast together in virtually every culture and religion on the planet, and feasting is a part of many mid-winter traditions. In some cultures food was offered to the gods to help ease the winter or bring back the sun. But few ancient people could afford to waste large quantities of meat once it had been consecrated, so it was roasted and eaten, with appropriate ritual, storytelling, song and dance. The Saami people of Finland sacrificed white female reindeer for their solstice celebration. Eastern Slavs celebrated the Feast of the winter mother goddess Rozhnitsa, at which deer shaped cookies were given as gifts and offerings to the goddess included honey bread and cheese . In Iran, families and friends gather for a solstice celebration called Shabe Chelleh, where traditional foods include dried fruits and nuts. Meat and ale were staples of the Germanic Yule feast.
- Mulled Wine & Cider
Some folks lament that wine is wasted by heating, but hot spiced wine and cider are long-standing staples of winter feasts. Traditional spices include cinnamon, mace, ginger, cloves, and orange, along with fortifications like black currant syrup and gin. Spiced wine dates back at least to the 1500s, when a version called “Hippocras” (named after Hippocrates) was sold to help heal muscle injuries. By early 1600, King Gustav I of Sweden was drinking a version of mulled wine he called “glodgad vin” known today simply as “glögg,” which means “to glow.” English villagers drank mulled cider while they went caroling or wassailing the apple orchards, where they banged together pots and pans to drive out evil spirits and then poured offerings of cider over tree roots.
- Gift Giving
The tradition of giving gifts at this time of year may owe some to the Roman god Saturn, patron of agriculture and plenty, and to his festival Saturnalia. For agricultural people, mid-winter can be a time of scarcity, and gift-giving during Saturnalia redistributed bounty from those who had excess to those who had little. Like feasting, though, giving gifts during celebrations is a tradition that has roots in many cultures, and perhaps even in biology. Our urge to give gifts is one that fascinates anthropologists, and one that many of us tackle with something between enthusiasm and exasperation. Whatever the roots, and however mixed we ourselves may feel, holiday merchants find the tradition a source of pure seasonal joy.
- Hearth Fires
Nothing says holiday cheer like an image of friends and family around a sparkling fireplace. The tradition of choosing a particularly hard, large log to burn, called the Yule log is a long-enduring English tradition that was adopted from the Germanic peoples of the Continent. British clergyman Robert Herrick wrote in the mid 17th Century that the young men who carried the log into the farmhouse were rewarded with free beer. With big enough fireplaces and dead trees and beer kegs this tradition alone might be enough to cheer some folks all the way through to the New Year.
- Last But Not Least, The Number Twelve
The twelve days of Christmas likely have their roots in ancient star worship. The number twelve has special significance in Judaism and Christianity. There are the twelve tribes of Israel, and the twelve disciples, and the 12,000 times 12 who, according to the book of Revelation, will make it into Heaven. Does that mean that those who have moved beyond belief should shun the number twelve? Absolutely not! Even the mythic significance of the number twelve has older roots, probably in the same that brought us the twelve signs of the zodiac and twelve months of the year and some parts of the Christmas story itself. Don’t forget the twelve feats of Hercules or the twelve Olympians. And perhaps you didn’t know about the twelve sons of Odin?
For as long as history has been recorded, and probably much longer, human culture has been a work in progress. We beg and borrow and mix and match. We live on the creative edge of chaos. Adopt Solstice as your holiday of choice, or Festivus, if you like. Or create your own tradition. But don’t be afraid to claim the Christmas customs that are dear to you, and then shape them as fits, and then hand them down, newly polished, to your children. That is part of what it means to be human.