The Holly and the Mistletoe: Ancient Roots of Christmas Symbols
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 honor the birth of Jesus Christ, but people in nations with little or no Christian traditions are also 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.
The Christmas Wreath
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 honor.
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.
A Christmas wreath. Ancient Druids, Celts, and Romans used to create wreaths out of evergreen branches too. (markobe /Adobe Stock)
Holy Christmas Holly
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 and 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.
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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.
Holly was thought to be magical because of its shiny leaves and its ability to bear fruit in winter. (zichrini /Adobe Stock)
Why Do We Kiss Under the Mistletoe at Christmas?
Mistletoe was another plant that was considered to be sacred among both Druids and Romans. It 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.
This is also 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, starting the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe.
Why do we kiss under mistletoe at Christmas? (Archivist /Adobe Stock)
The Yule Log – Do You Burn it or Eat it?
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 word ‘Yule’ itself seems to descend 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. Earlier in history, the pagan Celts, Teutons, and Druids burned massive logs in winter ceremonies in celebration of the sun.
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. Much feasting and merrymaking was had, similar to ancient practices.
The Yule log would burn 12 days. (vitaliy_melnik /Adobe Stock)
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. It was believed to ward off toothache, lightning, fire, mildew, and other misfortunes.
Top Image: Find out why mistletoe, holly and wreaths are popular Christmas symbols. Source: allasimacheva /Adobe Stock
Updated on December 22, 2020.