Updated: May 15, 2022
"Deck the hall with boughs of holly, Fa, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la!
'Tis the season to be jolly, Fa, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la!
Fill the mead cup, drain the barrel, Fa, la, la, la, la, la, la, la!
Troll the ancient Yuletide carol, Fa, la, la, la, la, la, la, la!"
Traditional English Christmas Carol
On December 13th, the nation of Sweden celebrates St. Lucia Day. St. Lucia was a young Christian who was martyred in 304 CE. The story goes that she brought food to persecuted Christians hiding from the Romans. She would wear a crown of candles to light her way thereby leaving her hands free to carry her supplies. In Sweden, as part of the celebration, a young girl is chosen to represent St. Lucia. She dons a white gown with a red sash and atop her head sits a crown of candles. This crown is a wreath of lingonberry branches. The lingonberry shrub is an evergreen plant.
Evergreen plants - whether trees, shrubs, climbing vines, or parasitic plants - have long been thought of as magical. It is not hard to understand how our ancestors revered evergreens. Their name betrays their ability to survive through the harshest days of winter. Evergreens would represent everlasting life. For the cultures in the northern climates, in particular, the ancient Germans and the Norse, evergreens became an essential part of their midwinter or Winter Solstice rituals and festivals. Under the Julian calendar, St. Lucia Day would have fallen closer to the Winter Solstice. And what would Christmas be without a tree, a wreath, holly, and mistletoe?
Like midsummer, midwinter held an important meaning for the ancient cultures of Northern Europe. When winter arrives, the days grow short, the growing season ends, food becomes scarcer, and the weather turns colder. The light of the world, the sun, fades until the Winter Solstice. With the shortest day of the year, people could look forward to the return of the light, the warmth, and the reappearance of plants and animals. (Interestingly, Lucia means "light") For the Germanic people, this time of the year was called Yule.
Yule was a three-night festival centered around the Winter Solstice. Its exact origins have been lost and much of what we know has been pieced together from later records and the filter of Christianity. The earliest references to Yule are connected to the months of the year. Yule or Yuletide would be similar to our December or January. There are scholars who have argued that Yule was a time when spirits of the dead more easily entered the living world. (Similar to the Celtic Samhain from which Halloween developed.) Others believe that Yule was a fertility festival like the Roman Saturnalia. Then there are those who support the idea that Yule was originally linked to the German god Wotan (in the Norse it would be Odin). In Old Norse, Odin's other names include Jolfadr ("Yule Father") and Jolnir ("The Yule One"). Odin was the head of the group of deities known as the Aesir who lived in Asgard. Yet Odin was known to wander the earth in search of knowledge and wisdom. As such, he is often depicted as a wanderer clad in a long cloak, pointed wide-brim hat, and long flowing beard. It is not hard to see some of the resemblances to early illustrations of Father Christmas or Saint Nicholas.
Similar to its midsummer counterpart, Yule involved bonfires, feasting, sacrifices, and divination. During this time, people would decorate their homes with boughs of evergreens. Part of most pagan rituals was the lighting of the hearth fire. The Yule log that is burned at Christmas most likely stems from this practice. The first references to this tradition appear in the 17th century but probably goes back further than that. A suitable log is found and with a great amount of ceremony, it is brought into the house. A piece of the previous year's log, which has been stored under the homeowner's bed to provide protection and good fortune during the year, is brought out to set the new log on fire. The relighting symbolizes the old year passing into the new one and also represents the return of the Sun. With the coming of Christianity, the Yule log was lit on Christmas Eve and left to burn through the twelve days of Christmas (January 5).
Three other evergreen plants have made their way into our Christmas related traditions. These are holly, ivy, and mistletoe. Holly and ivy were particularly important in Anglo-Saxon England. The holly plant has spiny leaves and therefore it discourages grazing animals. Holly was often grown as a barrier to protect gardens and more important trees such as oak. This could either be deliberate or by accident by the random spreading of seeds. Nonetheless, people associated holly with protection, and they would decorate doorways as a kind of flypaper for evil spirits. Over time, decorating with holly was brought inside the home. In many traditions, holly is paired with the ivy plant. (Think of the popular English carol "The Holly and The Ivy.) Ivy is an evergreen edible plant, one of only a few species that occurred naturally in England. Based on the shape of their leaves, ancient cultures may have held the belief that holly represented the male and the ivy represented the female. Twining the two together would represent the marriage of these two life forces which was necessary for the rebirth of nature in the Spring. Under Christianity, holly has come to symbolize Christ's crown of thorns and the red holly berries are his blood.
Mistletoe is a parasitic plant that lives in the canopies of trees. In the dead of winter, when the host tree is barren, the mistletoe remains alive and vital with no visible attachment to the life-giving ground. It is no wonder that mistletoe was held in such esteem by the ancient Celts, Germans, and Norse. Mistletoe had magical properties and was associated early on with love and fertility. In Norse mythology, the god Balder, the son of Odin, could only be killed by mistletoe. (Loki tricked the blind Hodur into killing his brother Balder with an arrow made from mistletoe.) Along with holly, mistletoe became an important decoration for many households even after the introduction of Christianity. The notion of kissing under the mistletoe would not start until the late 18th century.
Finally, there is the Christmas tree. The tradition of bringing an evergreen tree into the house seems to have started in late Medieval Germany. No one is completely sure why this tradition started but it could go back to the idea behind the Yule log. At one time, some argue, people burned entire trees as the Yule log rather than a small section. The Germans would use an actual tree or make a wooden structure that acted like one. Then they would decorate it mainly with candles. The evergreen representing everlasting life and candles representing the light of the world. In Christianity, the meaning is not hard to miss, but the return of the light and surviving another winter were ancient notions shared by our ancestors during the time of midwinter. It would take the Victorians to popularize our modern idea of a Christmas tree. Prince Albert, Queen Victoria's consort, brought the custom over to England from Germany.
It was about the 10th century that Yule celebrations began to merge with Christmas. The Nordic saga The Saga of Hakon the Good relates how King Haakon I of Norway converted the country to Christianity. Knowing that much of the people continued to follow their pagan beliefs, King Haakon passed a law that made all Yule celebrations coincide with the Christian celebrations of Christmas. Even after people gave up on their pagan religion, many of these Yuletide traditions remained in place. They morphed into Christian forms that we still practice today.
Rituals and traditions have changed throughout the millennia. The context in which they are practiced may evolve, but such customs reflect upon our shared humanity. Whether it is celebrated as Yule or Christmas, as scholar Bettina Sejbjerg Sommer of the University of Copenhagen argues “in the Yule period the coming year is not predicted, it is created. In this period, the impending year comes into being and that is why the coming year is shaped by the Yule period: everything that happens in this period influences and creates the coming year.” In the end, Yule, akin to the Roman Saturnalia, could simply be about the new year and new beginnings. Deep within the collective consciousness of humans is the hope that the new year is more fruitful and more bountiful than the previous one.
Yuletide Greetings to All.