In the cold winter months when the gloom in the sky threatens to reside in our hearts we here in the United States have a unique way of celebrating a holiday collectively referred to as Christmas, regardless of our religious persuasion.   Pine trees are brought indoors and decorated with lights and baubles, wreaths are hung on the door, candles are lit and neighborhoods have intense competitions for who can create the largest light show in their front yard.  Have you ever wondered just where or when this all started?  Cozy up by the fire with your laptop and I’ll share what I’ve found.

Christmas Trees, Boughs of Holly and Kissing Under the Mistletoe:   

During the long, bleak days of winter evergreen plants were symbols of tenacity and life everlasting to the Nordic and Celtic people.  These trees and plants which did not go into dormancy remained as symbols of hope in the renewal of life when the human spirit threatened to falter.  In fact, some cultures believed that the woodland spirits took refuge in these evergreens during the harsh winter months.  Decorating or honoring these plants, or bringing them into the home, was believed to be a way to gain the favor and blessing of the residing spirit.

 Some plants were assigned attributes either for the god or goddess associated with them or for their medicinal or magical use.  Mistletoe, for example, was known as the “All-Healing” herb or “Druids’ Weed” and was a symbol of health, luck and fertility.  Hung above doorways it was believed to provide protection and invite prosperity; kissing under the mistletoe was a sign of trust and friendship.

 Holly was the masculine symbol of summer in the winter darkness, with Ivy being the feminine counterpart. The pairing of the holly with the ivy goes back to a Greek myth where a young girl dances before Dionysus, represented by the holly, with such ardor that she falls dead.  In honor of her devotion Dionysus places her spirit into the plant which to this day bears her name.

 This pairing was again reflected in a fifteenth century carol called The Holly King and the Ivy Queen wherein the jovial Holly King is accompanied by the cold, weepy Ivy Queen then repeated in the Christmas carol The Holly and The Ivy.  Garlands made from holy and ivy symbolized fruitfulness

 Dionysus and Bacchus were just two of the gods associated with holly.  These personifications were seen as jovial lovers of life who encouraged us to participate heartily in life and trust we would be blessed.  A wonderful depiction of this character was offered as the Ghost of Christmas Present in the movie Scrooge, the one with Albert Finney as Scrooge.  The flowing green robe, table laden with food and crown of holy was the traditional depiction of this archetype.   The circular form of the crown, or wreath, represented the cycle of life.  It is not surprising the image would be also adopted for Jesus although, for Christians, the crown of holly represented his crown of thorns.

 The practice and ritual of decorating our houses with greenery can be traced back to ancient Rome around the Kalends of January, second century BCE.  Following the Midwinter Festival, also known as Saturnalia (after Saturn, god of agriculture), came a few days of rest as new consuls were inducted into office.  Houses were decorated with greenery and gifts were exchanged.

 The “Christmas Tree” as we know it today came into trend in 1840.  Decorating fir trees was a German tradition introduced to England by Prince Albert and Queen Victoria.  The fir-tree as a symbol of hope is reflected in the German carol O’Tannenbaum, the last verse of which translates as:

Your dress wants to
  teach me something:
Your hope and durability
Provide comfort and strength
  at any time.
O fir tree, o fir tree,
That's what your dress should
  teach me.

 Lights, Candles and the Yule Log:

For as long as there have been humans there has been a fascination with and worshipping of the sun, for without the sun there can be no food and no life.  For the ancient peoples winter was a frightening time with often limited provisions and a troubling apprehension that the Sun, the most important life-giving source, may not return.

The word Yule is derived from the word for wheel or cycle as in the Wheel of Life.  The Yule log began as symbolic magic to invite the spirit or energy of the Sun back to the village and into the home.  Traditionally the log was Oak or Ash, ritually blessed with wine or cider and then lit.  The ashes from the Yule log were either sprinkled in the fields to insure fertility or buried by the house to protect against lightning.  Part of the log was kept as kindling for next year’s fire.  Occasionally Yule candles were used instead of logs.  In these cases the tallow drippings from the blessed candle would be rubbed into the handles of the plow to insure fertile crops.

 The lighting of any candle or fire was seen as an invitation to the Sun god or goddess who represented prosperity.  This tradition has been carried over into the modern-day electric lights we use on our trees and homes. Let’s face it, when you drive past a home lit up like an amusement park don’t you think “those people must have a lot of money to be able to afford that electric bill”? 

 Lights and candles continue to be a beloved part of our winter festivities.  To some people a candle flame is a symbol of the imminent return of light and warmth; for others, a symbol of Divine Grace; and still for others it is a symbol of spiritual enlightenment.  I would like to suggest that the flame also be a representative of our interconnectedness and the strength of will and spirit to honor that thread throughout our associations with our fellow-man and stewardship of this Earth.  A light in the darkness, a star to guide us on our journey to being the people we are meant, and truly desire, to be.

 Happy Holidays to all; may the flame burn ever brighter for you in this New Year.

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