by Mary Lowers
As we approach mid-winter the ancient instinct to encourage light in the world enters our beings. On the Winter Solstice in the northern hemisphere, December 21, 2017 at 3:23 Mountain Time, we will be at the Cold Moon in the dark and frigid chasm of the longest night of the year. Starting December 4, 2017 the planet slowly begins to grow longer, warmer days and shorter, warmer nights in the northern regions. As we know all too well, come January and February this warming is a gradual process; but after the Winter Solstice we know the days are getting gradually longer, giving all creatures the promise of a warmer, greener and brighter tomorrow.
This wheel of the year has been acknowledged by every human culture. Ceremonies and celebrations are built around this annual cosmic event. In the far northern regions of the world many symbols and objects used to celebrate this cosmic event have made it to modern seasonal celebrations, but we often do not know the roots of these important elements of our mid-winter festivities. I set out to find the roots of some of our common holiday symbols and have picked a few to share with Eagle readers this season.
The Christmas tree as we know it today came from the holiday traditions of England and Germany during the Victorian Era in the mid- to late-nineteenth century. Clearly flora like firs, pines, holly and mistletoe which all remain green through the cold winter are symbols of hope that the warmth of summer will come again. Around a thousand years ago at winter solstice people in Scandinavia hung fir trees upside down from the rafters of their feasting halls. In many parts of northern Europe, early Christmas trees were cherry or hawthorn plants brought inside in pots to hopefully flower for the solstice. Poorer folk with homes too cold to grow a cherry tree or hawthorn bush crafted a pyramid shape to look like a tree and hung it with apples and candles. In early medieval times, Jesse Trees were used at Winter Solstice to illustrate the genealogy of Jesus, who descended from Jesse, an Old Testament patriarch. Christians say Jesus was born on Christmas to bring light into the dark winter world.
In Breman, Germany in 1570 there’s a record of a small tree, “decorated with apples, nuts, dates, pretzels and paper flowers” displayed for the Christmas season in a guild hall. During the Middle Ages in Europe, “Paradise Plays” were often performed on Christmas Eve. These dramas told Bible stories to the mostly illiterate population. The paradise in the plays was the Garden of Eden and the story of Adam and Eve’s fall from grace and expulsion from paradise after they ate the forbidden fruit was the plot line of these productions. Christmas celebrates in the Christian tradition the birth of Jesus Christ who came to earth to free humanity from this original sin of Adam and Eve. Apples were used to depict the forbidden fruit. The paradise tree was the main prop for these theatricals and was often a pine or fir tree with red apples hanging from it.
The so-called colors of the season—red, white, green and gold— derive their holiday identity from ancient roots. Green in the form of evergreen boughs has been used for thousands of years to brighten and freshen homes during the dark of winter to remind people that spring will come. The bright red we associate with the holidays is the color of apples which symbolize man’s fall into darkness. Holly berries’ vivid red symbolizes the blood Jesus shed to free humanity from the legacy of Adam and Eve’s fall from grace. Gold depicts sunshine and light. Red and gold together are the colors of the fire which warms. White is the symbol of purity and peace.
Candles and fires are often part of winter holiday celebrations. Fires symbolize to Christians and Pagans alike the return of longer, warm, sunny days. In Scandinavia the Feast of Juul is a Winter Solstice celebration in which a Juul, or Yule, log was brought from the woods with great ceremony and burned long and hot on the fire in honor of the Norse god Thor. Many northern European countries have a Yule log tradition. In some cultures a piece of the log was kept as a symbol of light and good luck. In some areas the Yule log was burned down to ashes which were spread across the dormant fields in the winter season to bring fertility to the soil. The ashes could be kept as a charm or medicine. Some French peasants kept the Yule log ashes under their beds as protection from lightening strikes.
Saturnalia was the name of the Roman mid-winter festival honoring the god Saturn. Several symbols have come down to us from this rowdy, seven-day celebration. The lighting and burning of candles is linked with Saturnalia. In some parts of Ireland candles are burnt like Yule logs during the longest night, and to let them go out before dawn is considered dreadful luck. Candles are used in Christian Advent wreaths to count down the days until Christmas. Jews use the Menorah with its Hanukkah candles to celebrate the miracle of light and hope.
Plants are also associated with the mild winter holidays. Holly, as mentioned earlier, has prickly leaves reminiscent of the crown of thorns worn by Jesus at his crucifixion, and its red berries are symbols of the blood he shed to bring Christians from the darkness of sin into the light. The rosemary plant, which is popular at Christmas, is associated with the Virgin Mary because it was said to be her favorite plant. It was thought to ward off evil and is called the remembrance plant to remind us of the birth of Jesus and the return of the light. Rosemary lends its lovely smell to freshen houses shut up tight against the cold. The red roses of the Virgin of Guadalupe are part of the celebrations in the Americas.
Mistletoe, a parasitic plant that grows on a range of trees, was brought to the Winter Solstice by the ancient Druids. These priests believed it possessed mystical powers that would bring good luck to the household. In the Norse tradition mistletoe symbolizes love and friendship. Curiously, the Anglo-Saxon translation of the word mistletoe comes from mistel, meaning poop, and tal, meaning stick. Mistletoe is poison to humans but provides food though the dark cold winter to many birds and animals.
Poinsettias joined the holiday tradition after Joel Robert Poinsett became the first US Ambassador to Mexico in 1825. He fell in love with the red and white flowers which bloom during the winter. The poinsettia comes from the southern region of Mexico called Taxco de Alarcón. The ambassador sent plants to botanic gardens all over the US. In the 1900s the Eckle family in southern California pretty much made them a holiday symbol.
Candy canes were invented 25 years ago in Germany. They represent the crooks of the staffs of the shepherds who came to see the baby Jesus. Christmas cards were created in England in 1843, partly to get people to use the new postal system. Carols were originally Pagan songs sung in a circle at Winter Solstice. The word carole means to dance in a circle.
Modern and older symbols help us remember and celebrate the turning of the wheel of the year and remind us of the light even when we are deep in darkness. May light come into your lives this season.