Christmas: A Hybrid Holiday
The Historical Roots Of Your Early Traditions
- Bringing Trees Indoors
The ancient Egyptians don’t have conifer trees, but they had palms – symbols of resurrection and rebirth. They often brought the fronds into their homes during the time of the winter solstice. The Roman Saturnalia was a festivity which fell on December 17. It was a time to honor the god Saturn, so homes and earths were decorated with all kinds of greenery – vines, ivy, etc.
It is rumored that once a fruitcake is baked, it will outlive everyone who encounter it. Fruitcake actually has its origins in ancient Egypt. There’s a story claiming that the Egyptians placed cakes made of fermented fruit and honey on the tombs of their decreased relatives – and these cakes lasted as long as the tombs themselves. Later Roman soldiers carried such cakes into bottle, made of mashed pomegranates and barley. There are even records of warriors on crusades carrying honey-laden fruitcakes into the Holy Land with them
- Christmas Caroling
Christmas caroling comes from the centuries-old tradition of wassailing, from door to door, singing and drinking to the health of neighbors. The concept comes from pre-Christian fertility rites. People walked through their fields in the middle of winter, singing and shouting to drive away any spirits that might inhibit the growth of future crops. caroling wasn’t actually done in churches until around the 13th century.
- Smooching Under The Mistletoe
Mistletoe was a magical plant for the druids and the Vikings both, among others. The Romans held fertility rituals under the mistletoe as it was considered a plant of peace in Norse mythology, mistletoe is associated with a goodness of love, Frigga.
- Decorated Trees
What have the Romans ever done for us?! Saturnalia celebrants often decorated trees with metal ornaments outdoors. Typically, these represent either Saturn, or the family’s patron god. Laurel wreath was a popular decoration as well. Early Germanic tribes honored Odin by decorating trees with fruit and candles at the solstice.
- Holy In The Winter
There is significant symbolism about the Christmas holly. The red berries represent the blood of Jesus Christ as he died upon the cross, and the sharp-edged green leaves stand for his crown of thorns. In Pagan cultures the holly was associated with the Holly King – the god of winter. He was annually battling with the Oak King according to their beliefs. Holly, a type of wood that could drive off evil spirits also came in very handy during the colder part of the year, when most of the other trees were leafless.
- The Yule Log
Today, the Yule log often refers to a delicious chocolate desert. But the tradition of the real Yule log reaches back to the cold winters of old Norway. On the night of the winter solstice, hoisting a giant log onto the hearth to celebrate the return of the sun was common each year. The Norse believed that the the sun was a gigantic wheel of fire which rolled away from the earth and began rolling back again on the winter solstice
- Giving And Receiving Gifts
The practice of Christmas gift giving is often connected to the Biblical tale of the three wise men who gave gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the newborn baby Jesus. However, the tradition also used to be present in other cultures – the Romans exchanged gifts between Saturnalia and the Kalends and around the early 19th century, most people exchanged gifts on New Years Day – and it was typically just one present, not a hoard of gifts.
- Gift-Delivering Beings
While Santa Claus has his roots in the Dutch sinterklaas Mythology, a couple of elements of Odin and Saint Nicholas are also added to the “brew”. La Befana, the kindly Italian witch who drops off treats for well-behaved children or Frau Holle, who gives gifts to women at the time of the winter solstice are both gift-delivering beings. In central Europe the baby Jesus brings the Christmas gifts with the help of the angels, while in Greece Saint Basil does, but on the 1st of January