Evergreen trees bedecked with glittery ornaments abound. The classic Christmas red and green catches your eye no matter where you go. Plant life like holly, mistletoe, and wreaths hang on people’s front porches. The familiar symbols you see in the world around you remind you of Christmas. But where did they come from? The tree, the colors, the decorations… even the date, definitely didn’t start with the Christian tradition. No, they’re remnants of all sorts of older, primarily pagan beliefs and traditions.
The date: December 25th was once the birth of Mithras, a sun god. Nearby is the 21st (and sometimes the 22nd) the solstice – the shortest day of the year. After this day, the sun begins to return to the earth. Many religions have an important holiday near this point, commemorating a new hope for the coming year. Even Christianity borrows from this idea – birth of the ‘son’, anyone? The sun was incredibly important in ancient cultures. They couldn’t flick on a light switch on long winter nights, or grow food in greenhouses. The sun was their light, source of food, and ultimately life. That’s why its return was a time of such celebration.
The colors: Green, red, and to a lesser extent gold, all are common around the holiday season. In old beliefs, and often still, gold represents the sunlight that will soon return. Green shows the turn of the seasons, and the new plant growth that is hoped for. Red is the winter sun.
The plants: Ivy and holly signify death and rebirth, as the sun fades away and then returns. Mistletoe was a pagan fertility symbol, also related to the Oak King, ruler of the wood in wintertime after the solstice. Finally, evergreen boughs show how life holds on even in the winter cold.
Other symbols: The common holiday wreath is a circle for a reason. It represents the cycle of life or the wheel of the year. Seasons pass, years fade away, but everything moves in a cycle. Bells were once believed to help awaken the sun and remind it to return to the earth.
The tree: You’d be amazed how much symbolism can be stuffed into one tree. In ancient druidic beliefs, trees were very important. Druids believed that trees had spirits, and often worshipped them. I’ve already explained how evergreen was symbolized. But trees were more than life, they were the universe. In Nordic mythology, the great ash tree Yggdrasil formed the world. Trees were sacred, and I’m sure they’d be appalled if they could see our practice today of cutting thousands down and keeping them in our homes.
The decorations on the tree are also meaningful. The lights we use today used to be candles. Fire was an important winter symbol. It represented the sun, as many of these holiday items do. The reflective spherical ornaments we put on our trees used to be known as ‘witch’s balls’. Their mirrored surface was believed to keep evil away, and they were often hung about a person’s house, in earlier times. The angel often seen at the top represents the eagle that was said to sit at the top of Yggdrasil, beating its wings to blow life into the world.
Almost everything about the holidays has a meaning, dating back far before modern traditions. Next time you see a Christmas tree, or a wreath, or anything, don’t just think of baby Jesus and turkey dinners. Remember the long history of druidic, pagan, and other practices that evolved into what we know today.