Since today is Winter Solstice, this is the perfect opportunity to answer that holiday question you've most likely been asking yourself for years: "Hey, what do Christmas trees and reindeer and candles and holly have to do with the birth of baby Jesus, anyway?" I mean, shouldn't we be decorating hay-filled mangers and, I don't know, pretending to be shepherds?
Nah ... nothing merry about mangers. But that doesn't change the fact that evergreen trees and reindeer and Santa and all the other jolly jazz have absolutely nothing to do with the birth of baby Jesus. Nope, not a thing.
Most of the symbols and traditions we associate with Christmas were taken from pagan Winter Solstice festivals that were in existence long, long before anything came upon a midnight clear ...
Twas thousands of years before Christmas, and all over the world, ancient civilizations honored the sun. Didn't matter where they lived -- Northern Europe or Britain or Egypt or Rome. Can you blame them? (Especially considering there was no electricity?) Anyway, as the shortest day of the year, Winter Solstice symbolized rebirth; literally, the rebirth of the Sun God: The beginning of longer, warmer days, plants/crops growing again, trees bearing fruit ... you get the idea. The triumph of life over death.
So the Winter Solstice, also known as Yule or Saturnalia, was definitely a reason to party! The go-to decor for home and temple? Evergreen boughs, which, because they are ever green, symbolize eternal life. The Vikings even thought that the evergreen was a special plant of their sun god, Balder. The Romans, on the other hand, thought holly was the special plant of their agricultural god, Saturn.
The Druids, meanwhile, cut mistletoe from oak trees and gave it as a blessing. Because they considered oak trees to be sacred, the winter fruit of the mistletoe represented life in the cold and darkness. The Druids also came up with the Yule log, meant to illuminate the darkness and banish evil spirits. Indeed, fire was an important element of most solstice festivities (more of that light/sun/life thing), which explains that string of lights around your blue spruce and the candles in the windows.
Even Santa and his reindeer have roots in pagan tradition. According to Norse mythology, Thor (god of thunder) flew through the sky in a chariot pulled by magical flying goats named Gnasher and Cracker. Scandinavian Father-god Odin also rode through the sky, but on an eight-legged horse.
Oh, that's where it all ties in with the first Christmas!
What, you don't remember the eight-legged flying horse in the stable? Kidding. Relax!
Do you ever think about the origins of Christmas symbols and traditions?
Image via Timo Newton-Syms/Flickr