(KTAL/KMSS) – Christmas trees, holly, mistletoe, and cider are staples of the holidays but these traditional parts of our holiday celebrations predate Christmas by several hundred years.
Tuesday is the Winter Solstice, the longest night of the year and the official start of the winter season. Many solstice celebrations became incorporated into Christmas celebrations over centuries as Christianity spread across Europe and cultures mixed together.
The U.S. Forest Service has a helpful breakdown of several plants we associate with Christmas and the traditions behind them, the most prominent being the Christmas tree, or Yule tree. Evergreens were part of the Roman celebration of Saturnalia and tree worship was a part of Scandanavian culture. Even after their conversion to Christianity the tradition stayed, bringing an evergreen tree into your home during the solstice to scare away the devil.
In 1500’s Germany the tradition of adding candles, apples, and cookies became popular with Lutherans. The tradition didn’t spread to England until Queen Victoria married Prince Albert of Germany, where the decorations became more elaborate.
Tree worship didn’t stop at the tree. Some areas still incorporate a ‘Yule Log’ into their celebrations, although in modern times a popular version is a cake in the shape of a log decorated with leaves. The Yule Log was often the largest log you could find, burned in the fireplace to protect from evil spirits through the longest night of the year. Orthodox Christian traditions still incorporate burning a Yule Log in some regions. The confectionary versions have been featured on famous cooking shows like the Pioneer Woman.
A popular tradition that also stayed with Scandinavian influence is kissing under the mistletoe. In Celtic Druid traditions it also had a connection with fertility because it will grow even in the cold of winter. In Norse mythology the Goddess Frigg declared it as a symbol of love and said she would kiss anyone who walked underneath it after Loki kills her son Baldr with a spear tipped in a poison made from mistletoe. According to Historian Mark Forsyth the modern tradition began in England between 1720 and 1784. The practice became more common in the 1800’s when historians believe it was thought to be bad luck if you didn’t accept the kiss.
Holly was also believed to have the ability to increase fertility due to it’s vibrant green and red color in the winter. Romans also used holly to decorate during the Saturnalia festival. It was believed to protect the home and bring good luck. That tradition continued as Christians hung it on doors to protect from evil spirits during the Holy Days. It’s such a popular Christmas decoration it has inspired famous songs, such as Frank Sinatra’s “Mistletoe and Holly.”
Cider may date back to the Celts in Britain around 3,000 BCE. They would visit an orchard, sing to the trees, and drink from a communal wassail bowl to encourage a good harvest next year. It was a drink in Rome, Greece, and the Middle East, and a popular favorite in Norman culture. Some areas still practice this tradition today.
St. Lucia’s Day honoring the Christian martyr also incorporates the Norse solstice tradition of lighting bonfires to ward off spirits during the longest night.