It has started; the Christmas decorating. In this house, it takes a week, and finally culminates in the dressing of the tree. And year on year, the same symbols abound throughout the festive season; Santa, the reindeer, the stable and the manger, hanging up the stocking etc, to name just a few. But have you ever wondered where they came from? It might surprise you to know that they derive from some pretty ancient, pre-Christian traditions. Here are my top 5.
The Christmas Tree
The tree we proudly decorate and display today is an invention of the Victorian days, introduced from Germany. Prior to this, the tree which most symbolised mid-winter is most likely to have been a Holly bush.
Imagine how winter must have felt to our ancestors; harsh and bleak, a time of hardship, a struggle for survival. The return of summer’s warmth and plenty seem a distant memory, an elusive dream . 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. Food stores are running low. Many animals are hibernating or have migrated so hunting is difficult. The days are short, the nights are long. Life seems to have slowed.
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 do they flourish in the deep dark season, when all else hides or fails? What magical powers do they possess which ensure their survival? They must surely be blessed by the Gods and full of potent power.
No doubt the evergreens were seen as a sign of hope, and a promise of new life to come in the lush and bountiful impending spring and summer. Until then, homes were decorated with boughs of bright holly and fragrant fir, clinging fronds of ivy and sacred sprigs of mistletoe to guard against misfortune and bring good luck upon the household.
The Star of Bethlehem has generally been presumed to be the North Star, but this is highly unlikely. If you think about it, the North Star is constant; how could it have suddenly alerted the Three Wise Men to the birth of Jesus?
Modern thinking is that the Three Wise Men were probably astronomers accustomed to studying the stars, much like the ancient Druids of Ireland. It is more likely that a series of unusual happenings in the night sky aroused their suspicions of an unusual and auspicious impending event.
It is now known that in March of the year 5BC, a nova was visible for approximately seventy days. A nova is a star which suddenly increases in brilliance. This could have caught their attention and led to the belief that it represented something of great significance, such as the birth of a new and powerful king.
Christmas wouldn’t be the same for me without a myriad gentle flickering candles. They create such warmth and atmosphere. Our ancient ancestors celebrated their festivals with the lighting of great bonfires on hill tops, where they would have maximum effect. These fires may have been lit to appease the sun God, thus ensuring his return, or simply honoured the golden life-giving orb of the sun. It may be that they offered light, warmth and reassurance in the dead of winter when they were lacking.
The arrival of the new religion eventually put an end to this practice, but candles were lit instead to symbolise the need-fire. Pacing a candle in the windows of one’s home was thought to warn off evil spirits, while welcoming friends and visitors.
I have a resident robin in my garden. In winter, when food and shelter is scarce, he flits ever closer to the house on his daily territorial wanderings. The robin is often depicted on Christmas cards. His fiery red chest, and his determination to survive harsh winter conditions must have been seen as inspirational and a sign of hope, endurance and renewal to our ancestors. He represents the beginning of the New Year and Spring, and regular visits from a robin are said to signify the presence of a departed loved one watching over you.
According to Christian lore, the robin tried to remove the thorns from Jesus’s crown, but only succeeded in snagging its own breast, and has worn its red feathers as a badge of honour ever since.
Sadly, I don’t have a stag in my garden. But this noble animal with his heavy crown of antlers takes my breath away with his grace and power. Recently, he has become very popular as a symbol of Christmas, but this should not come as a surprise.
Cernunnos, the Horned God, sometimes known as Herne the Hunter, is a Celtic deity depicted on the Gundestrop Cauldron with a stag at his side. This may indicate that he could shift between the forms of stag and man at will. He is thought to be a God of peace, nature and Lord of all wild things. Cernunnos was linked to the ancient Germanic mid-winter festival of Yule, a celebration of the Wild Hunt in which a spectral group of huntsman raced across the frozen winter sky. In Ireland, it was said to be Fionn mac Cumhaill leading his Fianna in the Wild Hunt.
A white stag was thought to come from the Otherworld and signified dramatic life changing events.