The Ancient Roots of Christmas Customs
Christmas is a very popular holiday tradition that is celebrated by some 2 billion people worldwide. This popular celebration is of course linked closely to Christianity and is intended to honour the birth of Jesus Christ, but people in nations with little or no Christian culture or tradition are celebrating this holiday in increasing numbers and, surprisingly, most of the Christmas customs we see practiced around the world do not have their roots in Christianity.
For many people, placing a wreath on the front door of the home at Christmas time is part of the festive decoration and Christmas cheer. But its’ meaning runs much deeper. For centuries, wreaths have represented the unending cycle of life and have been symbols of victory and honour. Ancient Druids, Celts, and Romans used evergreen branches made into wreaths in their winter solstice celebrations. As early as 1444, wreaths were used as Christmas decorations in London. In 16th-century Germany, evergreen branches were intertwined in a circular shape to symbolize God's love, which has no beginning and no end.
Ancient cultures believed that bringing green branches into the home and using them in rituals would ensure the return of vegetation at the end of winter. Holly was thought to be magical because of its shiny leaves and its ability to bear fruit in winter. Some believed it contained syrup that cured coughs; others hung it over their beds to produce good dreams. It was also a popular gift among the Romans as part of their Saturnalia festivities.
Several centuries after the birth of Christ, Christians began celebrating the birth of Christ in December while the Romans were still holding their pagan celebrations. By decorating their homes with holly as the Romans did, Christians avoided detection and persecution.
The early Christian church associated holly with various legends about its role in Christ's crucifixion. According to one legend, Christ's crown of thorns was formed from holly. The legend claimed that the holly berries were originally white, but were stained red by Christ's blood. So for ancient Christians, the sharply pointed holly leaves became symbols of the thorns in Christ's crown and the red berries drops of his blood.
Mistletoe was also considered to be sacred among both Druids and Romans, and was believed to have healing powers and the ability to ward off evil. It was also thought to be the connection between earth and the heavens, because it grew without roots, as if by magic, and a symbol of peace – soldiers who found themselves under mistletoe quickly put down their weapons and made a temporary truce. In a related custom, ancient Britons hung mistletoe in their doorways to keep evil away. Those who entered the house safely were given a welcome kiss, thus started the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe.
The Yule Log
In many countries, especially in Europe, it is common to light what is referred to as a Yule log at Christmas time. Cakes shaped like logs are served and called Yule cakes. The modern Christmas celebration itself is sometimes even referred to as Yule, as a traditional festival descending from a Pre-Christian midwinter Germanic or Nordic countries connected to the celebration of the Wild Hunt, the god Odin, and the pagan Anglo-Saxon Mōdraniht.
The world Yule, itself seems to be descendant from jól – found in many languages: Common Germanic, Old Norse, Icelandic, among others. References to burning a Yule log at Christmas (or Yuletide) appear in the 17th century, but the original origins are unclear.
When Christianity emerged in Europe, the Yule log remained popular. In order to justify this ancient pagan ritual, church officials gave it a new significance, that of the light that came from Heaven when Christ was born.
The huge block or log of wood would be burned at one end for a duration of 12 days — The Twelve Days of Christmas, also known as Twelvetide— a festive Christian celebration of the Nativity of Jesus (and much feasting and merrymaking was had, much as in the way of the ancient observations). The wood wouldn’t be burned completely, but taken off the fire with the intent to burn the same block the next year, and so on. During the rest of the year, the charred wood log would bring good fortune to the household; in the belief it warded off toothache, lightning, fire, mildew, and other misfortunes.
The tradition of the Yule log also has pagan roots as the Celts, Teutons and Druids burned the massive logs in winter ceremonies in celebration of the sun.