by Cathy MacRae
I don’t know if you wait until the last moment to put up Christmas decorations, or if you’re chomping at the bit in July, but you’ll probably agree, Christmas seems to arrive a bit earlier each year. And while the decorations seem to grow grander every year, there are some that are rooted deeply in the darkness of time.
In pre-Christian Scotland, Celtic Pagans held celebrations around winter solstice, around December 21 or 22, to appease the gods so they’d allow the sun to return (sun rises around 8:30 and sets about 3:30 this time of year in Scotland, and in some more northerly regions, the sun scarcely rises at all) and pretty much to brighten a time when the bitter cold and lingering darkness was fairly depressing. The Yule festivities included feasting, games, drinking, singing, and sacrifices to the appropriate gods.
Here’s a fun list of some of the Yule traditions and how they’ve stayed with us through the years.
The Christmas ham: The Vikings sacrificed a wild boar to Frey, the god of fertility, hoping to assure a good growing season the following year.
Wassail: This word is from an Anglo-Saxon term, waes hael: to be whole or hale. It refers to a drinking salutation or greeting of trees and crops during Yule festivities to ensure abundance in the coming year.
The Christmas wreath: This decoration stems from shaped boughs of evergreen brought inside the house during Yule, symbolizing life.
The Yule log: It was originally a large oak log, carved with runes against misfortune, and decorated with bits of holly or fir. To bring good fortune to the home, the log must burn for 12 hours. Charred pieces were saved to protect the home the following year and used to light the next year’s Yule log. It was likely originally burned outdoors amid a huddled group of people on the longest night of the year, hoping to keep the darkness at bay.
The Christmas tree: As the trees went dormant for the winter, people would decorate the evergreens with bits of food, articles of clothing and other decorative pieces, hoping to entice the tree gods to return in the spring.
Mistletoe: This plant is believed to bestow life, protect against poison, and was also considered an aphrodisiac. Part of this belief comes from the legend of Balder, god of light and goodness, who was killed by an arrow made of mistletoe. When his mother, Frigga, learned of her son’s death, her tears turned the red mistletoe berries white, and he was brought back to life. She was so happy, she kissed everyone who passed beneath the tree where the mistletoe grew. Kissing under the mistletoe was considered a fertility rite, which seems appropriate as she was associated with marriage and the birth of children. Mistletoe was also hung from rafters and around doorways to ward off evil spirits.
The Yule goat: (this one was new to me, and perhaps more Scandanavian than Scottish) Said to be one of the oldest Yule symbols, it represents the god Thor who rode through the sky in a wagon pulled by goats. Custom has it that young people, dressed as goats, traveled from house to house, singing and perhaps performing short plays. They were treated to food and drink. (Perhaps the origins of our caroling?)
Santa Claus: Representing Old Man Winter, this person would dress in a hooded fur cloak (usually blue) and travel from home to home to join the Yule festivities. He may have originally represented Odin, who was always depicted with a long beard and came to earth on his 8-legged horse to see how his people fared. (are you listening for reindeer hooves or an 8-legged horse on your rooftop?). To those in need, he left gifts of food. In the 8th and 9th centuries when the Vikings conquered Britain, Old Man Winter—or Odin—became Santa Claus.
I hope you enjoyed these little insights. What other symbols do you know the history of?