The Pre-Christian Origins of Christmas Decorating

Oh Christmas tree! No pressies under it yet...
Oh Christmas tree! No pressies under it yet…

So in between looking after sick children, having teeth pulled at the dentist, and trying to get my Christmas shopping finished started, I’ve been decorating my home for Crimbo. Now, I’m not a religious person, but I do enjoy Christmas. I enjoy giving gifts to the people I love, I enjoy the festivities, catching up with family and friends, and the special foods we wouldn’t eat at any other time of year, not to mention mulled wine. And I love the decorating. As anyone who follows me on Pinterest will have gathered… sorry, folks!

Each year, I try to make my own decs. This morning, I spelled ‘NOEL’ for my mantle out of twigs and bits and pieces… although at the moment it just says ‘NOL’, as I’m waiting for some help with the ‘E’. No doubt it will stay that way for the season! I’ve made wreaths out of wire and feather boas and trimmings from my tree. And I try to reinvent my existing decs to get a fresh look every year.

It’s all about the birth of Christ, right? Wrong!

As I’m doing all of this, I have become increasingly aware of how it all started, and what it truly represents. All you Christians out there may be in denial about this, but the event we celebrate as Christmas really has nothing at all to do with the birth of Christ. I’m sorry if that upsets you, but its a fact. No one really knows for sure when Jesus was born, but as the shepherds were still out in the open with their flocks, its quite likely they were still at summer pasture.

Those pesky pagans…

Of course, it’s all the fault of those pesky pagans. They refused to give up their mid-winter celebrations, so the Christians desperately needed a way to seize control. Some time during the C4th AD, they came up with the cunning plan to celebrate Jesus’s birthday at Midwinter. Gradually over the centuries, the two festivals merged into Christmas as we know it today. This was the kind of clever tactic they were good at; they successfully absorbed other pagan festivals, too, such as Samhain with Halloween, Imbolc with St Bridget’s Day.

So what’s this got to do with decorating?

But I was talking about seasonal decorating. It’s a strange thing to do, so why do we do it? Well, our beloved Christmas tree is a C17th German custom adopted in the UK and Ireland during Victorian times. We all love a well-decorated tree, don’t we? Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without it! And it just so happens that this tradition also stems from a far more ancient pagan custom.

Yes, the pagans cut boughs from evergreen trees and shrubs and brought them inside to decorate their homes at the Winter solstice. Why? Let’s think about it…

The hardship of winter.

It’s the middle of winter; it’s dark, cold, wet and maybe frosty or snowy. All the deciduous trees and plants have died or are hibernating. Crops cannot grow in frozen or flooded ground. The food stores are running low. Many animals are hibernating or have migrated so even hunting for food is difficult. The days are short, the nights are long. Life seems to have slowed. It’s certainly more full of hardship than it ever was before. Could the Gods have forsaken them?

Yet despite the ‘death’ of winter, the evergreens continue to push stoically through the snow, bracing their stunning shield of vibrant green against the cruel onslaught of winter. How did they flourish in the deep dark season, when all else hid or failed? What magical powers did they possess which ensured their survival? These plants must surely be blessed by the Gods and full of potent power. More than that, they must have been seen as a sign of hope, and a promise of new life to come in the lush and bountiful impending spring and summer.

Sacred Evergreens.

In particular, mistletoe and holly were greatly venerated by the Druids. Mistletoe, despite being poisonous to humans, was thought to bring fertility and healing. When found growing on an oak tree, it was considered especially powerful, and would be gathered on the 6th night of the full moon after winter solstice. It was hung over doorways to ward off evil.

Holly was another plant sacred to the Druids. With its glossy green leaves and bright red berries, it’s hardly surprising. Although poisonous to humans, its leaves and berries were believed to have medicinal properties, and it was also hung up in the home for protection.

Symbol of hope.

Now it makes sense. Bringing the greenery indoors not only served the purpose of brightening the home and bringing good cheer, but was a symbol of hope for the future, and perhaps shared its magical powers and protection with those who dwelt there. Yet it seems they never cut down the trees to carry inside as we do; they merely removed branches and sprigs. Perhaps to cut down and kill something which showed the only signs of life during the death of winter was seen as a bad omen.

We weren’t the only ones…

The ancient Irish and Celts weren’t the only pagans to carry out this practice. The ancient Egyptians used palm branches for the same purposes, and the Romans decorated trees with bits of metal and images of their fertility God, Bacchus, at the festival of Saturnalia, which begins on Dec17th and lasts until just after the solstice.

*

The first thing I put up last week was a fake evergreen garland. It irritated me for two days, until I finally took it down again and banished it, never to return. I have replaced it with the off-cut branches of my Christmas tree, and now I feel much happier. I love my real tree at Christmas, but maybe next year I might go for a potted version. I’ve never ever felt comfortable with cutting down trees. Perhaps I’m beginning to set my inner pagan free…

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32 thoughts on “The Pre-Christian Origins of Christmas Decorating

  1. It’s all right. You don’t have to apologize about enjoying a Christmas-Tree… Isn’t is fascinating how pre-christian celebrations were adopted to christianity (all over the world). I guess this was what helped to spread it… We Christians never should forget this and open our minds. Unfortunately not all do and I am sorry for this.
    So: Enjoy the cosy festival season and my best wishes for the year 2015!

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    1. Hi Clau! Nice to see you here! You dont need to appologise for what the leaders of your faith did in the past. Some terrible tbings have been done in the past in God’s name, in many religions not just Christianity. Here in Ireland we are still uncovering that legacy with the Magdalene laundries, the mother and baby homes, the dying rooms, the widespread abuse of children in care homes etc… and all this within living memory. You are right that Christians should have open minds and remember these things so they never get repeated. But I think most people over here would prefer to look away, because it is too awful to admit, let alone comprehend. I know a lot of good comes from organised religions too, but the larger they get, the more other human traits come into play, like hunger for power and control. Regardless, this is a wonderful and magical time of year, whatever your beliefs. Today is the winter solstice, and even though I cant see the sun, I am happy that from today, the days are getting longer again. Thats a really good feeling! And in only a few weeks, on the Celtic Calender, it will be Imbolc, the first day of Spring… it makes the winter seem very short! Thank you for visiting my blog, and for your lovely message, and I hope you enjoy a happy peaceful Christmas!

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  2. We put up our tree on the 24th and take it down 12 days later. We decorate with mistletoe and keep it all year for luck, holly (we keep that all year to put on the sofa at night to stop the cat peeing on it) and ivy that we pinch from the park. We put up wreaths on the doors, next to the horsehoes, (we have houseleeks on the roof too). We have a crib that my grandma ordered from somewhere special in Ireland with figures that are so massive she cancelled the three wise men and the camels because we couldn’t give them house room. We have added our own figures including a yellow soap frog, several mega warriors and a green Chinese Father Christmas. The cat sits on the hay with the baby Jesus. It’s a ritual that has nothing to do with Christianity and I like it that way. My grandma didn’t have much truck with it either, but the crib was so kitsch she couldn’t resist it.

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    1. You have conjured up such a unique vision of Christmas for me! Thanks Jane, I knew there was more than just poetry and books which connected us lol! Your Christmas sounds so much fun!

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      1. You know what is strange is that I find my own children do the same cranky things every year, just like we used to do. The same odd bits of Christman memorabilia (like the three-legged reindeer) get trotted out every year and put in exactly the same place. Even random objects that got put away with the Christmas decos by accident. All ritual. I like that part of it.

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        1. Yes, there is something special and cosy about having your own unoque family traditions… it gives you such a nice glow. I cant wait to shut the door on the rest of the world on Christmas Eve and just play games, watch movies, eat and drink lots and generally just relax for a couple of days with my kids and hubby. For the last few years my sister and her family have come over for Christmas (they live in Holland) which has been fab, and I’m really going to miss her, but Im also looking forward to it just being us.

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          1. Tho I love the deco etc of Christmas I hate the persent stuff. I’m always afraid that mine are too old now to be happy with any old rubbish and it’s tricky finding something they’d like that falls into our (very small) budget. I get horribly stressed and shouldn’t because they seem to enjoy whatever they’re given anyway.

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  3. Wonderful post and information. I love it all! It brought up all sorts of thoughts in me.
    I learned that it stemmed from the December Roman feast of Saturnalia (Saturn- god of agriculture) that lasted a week back in wicked old Rome. The Romans too gave gifts and lit lamps symbolizing the quest for truth.
    And yet Christmas as such is decidedly Christian as Christ’s mass also and I can understand the fusion. No matter, it’s all good. I feel a bit of both- and love it all ! pagan mistletoe and holly and celebration of the seasons. – and also the idea of a new baby (Christ child) being born bringing light in the darkness of winter as part of this whole concept of hope and renewal too. The universal consciousness!! (Clever church lol)
    Free the inner pagan- I love that.

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      1. I have always loved Christmas but there is sadness to it as well, especially this year. But I look to the light. Thank you so much for your follow. I love your myth, legends and stories of old Ireland and the celts ( similar to Scottish too.) I write a bit also, though my Tales of the Tuatha are completely my own meanderings- though based in legend.

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    1. Thanks David! Yes, I think that may be the answer. I was actually looking at the potted ones but fell in love with the tree I pictured at the top of the post. It was so perfect! I shall probably end up with a forest of replanted potted trees… just as well I’ve got room for them in my garden, I mean overgrown field!

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        1. Rajiv its still like that here for the majority. But there is a definite swing towards knowledge and beliefs of the past, which I think can only grow. I think it will be a long slow revolution though…

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