The lights of Christmas with which we garb our homes symbolize the ancient need to disperse the darkness, reaching back millennia to the practices of our illiterate pagan ancestors and having their origin in rituals revolving around the winter solstice, meant to revive the sun and keep at bay the forces of darkness.
“Solstice” derives from the Latin “solstitium,” which means “sun standing.” The sun reaches its point farthest south on the winter solstice, when people in the Northern Hemisphere experience the shortest day and longest night.
Pagans worshipped the Sun and didn’t take its return for granted. They believed the Sun was truly endangered and believed their role was necessary to ensure its return. They wore horse masks, antlers, deerskins and goatskins and danced in the firelight. They adorned themselves and their houses with holly, ivy, and mistletoe, evergreens charged with enchantment. Because longer nights held greater threat from evil creatures, people chanted protective spells, posted magic symbols on doors and clothes, and avoided dark by making fire.
Fire, the brother of the Sun, was the center of all winter festivals. Great bonfires burned on the hills of Ireland and Scotland and the mountains of France and Germany and in the halls of Norse kings to give the winter sun god strength and bring him back to life. Candles were lit in Rome at Saturnalia, which was dedicated to the Titan Saturn, lord of the harvest. Held the week ending Dec. 24, Saturnalia was a time of reversals, when masters served slaves, and Romans held banquets, decorated houses with green boughs that signified life, and bestowed presents. In northern Europe, men circled deasil — sunwise, or clockwise — in village sword dances, forming patterns in the air with swords. The climax of the dance was the six-pointed star formed by the swords, representing the Sun.
Because the winter solstice was firmly fixed in the minds of the people and was their most important festival, the Catholic church eventually chose the solstice as the day of Christ’s birth. Pope Gregory I, in 601, wrote to missionaries, “Let the shrines of idols by no means be destroyed but let the idols which are in them be destroyed … so that the people, not seeing their temples destroyed, may displace error, and recognize and adore the true God … And because they were wont to sacrifice oxen to devils, some celebration should be given in exchange for this … they should celebrate a religious feast and worship God by their feasting, so that still keeping outward pleasures, they more readily receive spiritual joys.”
Besides the date, Christmas acquired lights, fire and the Yule log from pagan sun rituals; Christmas decorations from saturnalia; mistletoe, holly, ivy, and bay from British Isles peoples; and the Christmas tree, which probably arose in eighth-century Germany. Boniface, an English missionary to Germany, is said to have replaced sacrifices to Odin’s sacred oak with a fir tree adorned in tribute to the Christ child.
In the British Isles on Christmas Eve, gillean Nollaig, or the Christmas lads, went house to house chanting old traditional songs. Dressed in white, they entered a house, lifted up the youngest child, placed it on the skin of a male lamb, a creature without blemish, and carried it three times deasil around the fire. People of the house gave food and drink to the Christmas lads, and a feast followed.
The Yule log in England was cut and dragged home by oxen, people singing as they walked beside it. It was often decorated with evergreens and sometimes sprinkled with grain or cider before it was lit, and it was kept burning for 12 hours or 12 days. Its burning protected the household against witchcraft, and the ashes were scattered over fields to make them fertile, cast into wells to purify water, or used in charms to free cattle from vermin or ward off hailstorms. When it was extinguished, a fragment was kept to start next year’s log. The Yule log symbolized the light that will return after the long, dark winter.
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