Ancient Origins of Favorite Christmas Traditions PLUS Those You May Never Have Heard About
Every year as December rolls in, some 2 billion people start to feel the Christmas cheer. While the celebration is primarily a Christian one honoring the birth of Jesus, its traditions merge with the beliefs and customs of a whole host of ancient cultures – gift-giving and feasts from the Romans; wreaths and evergreen trees from the pagans; cooked turkey from Native Americans; and the Yule log from Old Norse traditions. There are also numerous lesser-known traditions like Wassailing, Mumming, and the Upside-Down Christmas Tree!
Hanging a Christmas Wreath
A common feature on the doors of many homes around Christmas time, a holiday wreath is an inviting touch of holiday cheer. But the meaning of this decoration runs much deeper than festive felicitations. Since classical antiquity, wreaths have been symbols of power, strength, and the cycle of life. Laurel wreaths crowned Greek and Roman kings and emperors, and were given to victorious athletes or military commanders.
Harvest wreaths have been crafted since prehistoric times and used in rituals to encourage abundance. Wreaths of woven evergreen branches were used by Druids, Celts, and Romans during their winter solstice celebrations. By 1444, wreaths had become popular Christmas decorations in London and in the 16th century, Germans had combined wreaths with the everlasting life and love of God.
A Christmas wreath. (CC0)
Here We Come A-Wassailing!
Wassailing is an English custom from the Medieval period that has largely been left behind by holiday revellers these days. There are two kinds: one that involves going to cider producing orchards and chanting to the trees to promote a good harvest, and the second in which people go door-to-door singing and offering a drink of wassail in exchange for gifts or food. Traditionally wassailing would be done on Twelfth Night (January 5 or 6).
The word ‘Wassail’ comes from 'waes hael', an Anglo-Saxon phrase meaning 'good health.' It refers to a beverage made of mulled ale, curdled cream, roasted apples, eggs, cloves, ginger, nutmeg and sugar. In the middle ages, wassail was generally served in huge bowls, sometimes made of pewter or silver.
The orchard version of wassailing lives on and typically involves a wassail King and Queen who lead farmers, farm workers, and other villagers from orchard to orchard. In each orchard, the wassailers gather around the biggest tree and the Queen places a wassail-soaked piece of bread on one of its branches. Traditionally, the group then sings, shouts, bangs pots, and fires a shotgun into the air. They make the ruckus to awaken the tree and frighten evil spirits away.
Wassailing at Maplehurst, West Sussex (CC by SA 2.0)
The Christmas Tree Welcomes Back the Sun
As far back as 600 BC, evergreen trees were placed alongside another divine being with a birthday celebration in December - the Sun God Mithras. Northern European sun-worshipping cultures also had a strong interest in evergreens. Hanging evergreen boughs in one’s home was thought to help revive the weak sun when the days were their darkest and dreariest nearing the winter solstice - December 21 in the northern hemisphere.
Christmas trees weren’t even a thing until 1605, when stories say the German reformer Martin Luther was inspired by the beauty of an evergreen under a starry night sky one Christmas Eve. He cut down a tree, took it home, and tried to replicate the vision by putting lit candles on it. It did not take long for others to do the same.
Relief carving at Persepolis, ceremonial capital of the Achaemenid Empire, depicting Mithra and an evergreen tree. ( Achaman Guañoc )
The Upside-Down Christmas Tree
Recently, there has been a twist on how to decorate a Christmas tree – some people and businesses have begun hanging their luxurious Christmas trees upside-down from ceilings. Even this could loosely be tied to an ancient tradition – the Polish holiday of Wigilia or Wilia. In the 12th century, the top or bough of a fir tree would be hung pointing down from the rafters, usually facing the dinner table. The tree was adorned with fruit, nuts, shiny sweets, straw, ribbons, golden pine cones, and other ornaments.
Saint Boniface is the one credited with bringing the upside-down ‘Christmas tree’ to Christianity. Legends say the 8th century saint saw pagans preparing to celebrate the winter solstice by sacrificing a young man under an oak tree and was angered by their ritual. The saint chopped down the tree and when a fir tree grew in its place, he cut that one too, then allegedly hung it upside down to try to use the triangular shape as a tool to explain the Holy Trinity to the pagans while trying to convert them.
An upside-down Christmas tree. (Marco / Adobe Stock)
Eating Fruitcake and Drinking Eggnog
Both fruitcake and eggnog are either loved or hated staples of the holiday season. Fruitcake is another part of Christmas with origins back in ancient Rome. It was a way to preserve fruit by mixing it with barley mash, pomegranate seeds, pine nuts, and raisins (and maybe honeyed wine) to create satura. Spices and preserved fruits were added in the 18th and 19th centuries. Those ingredients were costly, so fruitcake was a dish saved for special occasions, such as Christmas or weddings. In Victorian England, the fruitcake was a must-eat food at those events. The tradition passed on to British colonies.
Eggnog was inspired by the Medieval British drink called posset – a mixture of milk curdled with wine or ale, often spiced, which was often used as a remedy in the winter. In the 13th century, eggs, figs, brandy or sherry were sometimes added in - expensive ingredients at the time - and the drink became even more costly when spices such as nutmeg and cinnamon were included. The drink was almost exclusively for the monks and wealthy.
It became a popular holiday drink when it moved to America in the 18th century, where eggs were plentiful and rum was used in place of other alcohol. The warm temperature and flavors combined well with the holiday season. It is also possible that the scarcity of rum during the American Revolution could account for why the drink became designated for special occasions.
Making Merry Under the Mistletoe
With yet another link to ancient Rome, mistletoe is also a popular part of Christmas decorations. Both the Romans and the Druids believed that mistletoe could heal and ward off evil. It seemed to grow by magic, without roots, and Pre-Christian groups also saw the white berries as symbols of male fertility.
For the Romans, mistletoe was a decoration hung over doorways during Saturnalia as a symbol of peace, love, and understanding. Ancient Britons also hung the plant in their doorway to keep evil out. Anyone who was able to cross the threshold safely received a welcome kiss, thus starting the Christmas tradition of kissing under the mistletoe. Christian couples kissed under the mistletoe to protect them from witches and demons and the serving class of Victorian England encouraged the tradition, claiming that a man could kiss any woman standing under the mistletoe and if the woman refused she would have bad luck.
‘The Mistletoe Bough’ (1790) by Francis Wheatley. (Public Domain)
Look Out for the Yule Goat!
Yule is another name for the Christmas celebration which originates in festivals in Pre-Christian Germanic and Nordic countries. Jól, jul, and similar names, link the holiday to the Wild Hunt and the god Odin ( jólfaðr (Old Norse for "Yule father" and jólnir "the Yule one"). It also has origins in the pagan Anglo-Saxon Mōdraniht winter solstice feast and fire burning. After spending 35 dark days in the Scandinavian winter, scouts would head to mountain tops and await the return of the sun. Upon the first light, they would hurry back to their villages and share the good news. A Yuletide festival commenced with the glad tidings and a special feast was held around a Yule log fire.
In Sweden there is another iconic Yule feature – the Yule Goat. In the 11th century (or perhaps even earlier), it was said that Saint Nicholas was accompanied by a man-sized goat figure who could control the devil. In the 17th century, young men would dress as the goat and demand gifts or they would deal out pranks. By the 19th century, the Yule goat was a figure who gave gifts instead. Now, the creature is more often seen as a straw Christmas ornament gracing trees throughout Sweden.
A Yule Goat decoration. (kavring /Adobe Stock)
Children Leaving Out Milk and Cookies (and Maybe a Carrot or Hay)
Many children leave out cookies and milk (or beer and a mince pie, or other treats) for Santa Claus on Christmas Eve. But few know this tradition can be traced all the way back to ancient Norse mythology, includes a German Christmas tree, and finishes up with Saint Nicholas.
It was said that children hoping for gifts from Odin, the aforementioned Yule father, would leave treats for his eight-legged horse Sleipnir, with hopes that the god would stop at their house while he was on his Yule hunting trip. Once Santa Claus took over, the eight-legged horse became a team of flying reindeer – and children today believe those magical creatures generally like carrots or hay.
Odin riding Sleipnir. (Public Domain)
The Merrymaking of Mumming
Mumming, 'making diversion in disguise', is another holiday tradition almost unknown today. It may have its roots in pagan Roman New Year customs. In the UK, the custom involved men and women exchanging clothes, wearing masks, and visiting their neighbors. Once there they would entertain with a mimed played – ‘mum’ meaning silent.
Over time, the entertainment expanded and a mumming group would either sing, dance, or put on a silly play. Their party would be led by Father Christmas. Christmas mumming plays were especially popular in Medieval Ireland and they often included a combat between two heroes, an elaborate sword dance, one of the heroes being defeated, and his revival by a doctor.
Despite the popularity, things would often get out of control and crimes and begging would ensue. Eventually, Henry VIII got fed up with the unruly mummer behavior and proclaimed that anyone caught in a mumming mask would be sent to jail for three months. Nonetheless, the tradition has lived on in a few parts of the UK, USA, and Canada.
In the custom of Mumming, men and women would exchange clothes, wear masks and visit their neighbors (marcodeepsub / Adobe Stock)
Christmas preserves our roots as we live out the traditions our forebears started so long ago. From the Celts to the Christians and the Vikings to the Victorians, they have all added to the rich tapestry of the holiday we call Christmas.
Top Image: Father Christmas enjoying the Christmas feast tradition. Date: circa 1860 (Archivist / Adobe Stock )