From very ancient times the Nordic races and especially the Druids celebrated the pagan festival of the winter solstice on December 22. Celebrating the rebirth of the sun and the lengthening days to come.
This festival was called Yule or “Jol”, a Nordic word meaning “festival of 12 days”. Celebrations centred around the fir tree which symbolically represented an ever-continuing cycle of life. The northern pagan tribes viewed the fir tree with great reverence. It had the ability to survive and stay green throughout the severest of winter conditions while giving shelter, timber and many essences used for healing. Fir logs burned brightly and gave off great warmth.
It was believed that fire kept the devil away and it symbolizing warmth and light. Giant Yule logs of fir or oak were carried to the home amid great singing, dancing and revelry. The log was lit with a brand from the previous year’s log and was dedicated to the honour of Thor. The log was kept burning for the entire 12 day festival. If It were to go out this would have been very bad luck.
Decorations made of straw and corn to adorn the house and were place on the front door. They were meant to please the corn and wheat spirits to insure a good harvest later in the year. Sacred fir boughs decorated the house in sprigs, garlands and wreaths as a symbol of survival and renewed life.
Holly, Ivy, yew, cherry laurel and mistletoe all carried immense spiritual significance so were incorporated with the fir boughs in the decorating scheme. A wreath always adorned the front door as a sign of welcome and good luck for the coming growing season.
The circular wreath represented the continuing, eternal circle of life. Usually made of willow, symbolizing grace and flexibility, it was adorned with all the other symbols of life: fir, holly, pine cones, mistletoe, etc.
The tree itself was decorated with similar symbols. Small willow wreaths adorned with berries, pine cones, apples, nuts and other fruits, small cakes and shapes cut out of bread, bird feathers, sprigs of holly, wintergreen, and mistletoe. The Yule festival spread with the advance of the Norms through much of Europe but remain unchanged for many centuries.
Further south the Romans also celebrated a winter solstice festival. This was the festival of Saturnalia. Saturn was the god of agriculture. The rebirth of the sun was extremely important and represented the beginning of the new growing season. Saturnalia began Dec 17th with religious rites lasting 7 days.
No one could work during this time except cooks and bakers. This was a time of great feasting, drinking and gambling. Laws were reversed for that week. Slaves were freed for those seven days and one was chosen as king and given a paper crown to wear.
Because it was very important to appease Saturn, a spirit of enforced goodwill abounded. People were expected to live in harmony. There was to be no fighting or discord among the population. Small gifts were shared between family and friends as a token of endearment.
Decorations with obvious agricultural relevance adorned both the inside and outside of the house. These often included holly, cherry and bay laurel, cedar, cypress and other evergreen boughs and garlands, fruits, nuts, berries and arrangements of grains.
Candles often adorned these decorations or were placed around the house to symbolize the coming of the light from the darkest days of the year.
The first Christian influence on the festival appeared In the fourth century. Early Christians were attempting to make converts of the pagans. The winter festival of Yule seemed to be a perfect time to celebrate Christ’s birth. The people were already celebrating the rebirth of the sun and the returning light and warmth.
And Jesus said he was the “Light of the World’ and giver of love, warmth and through Him all good things would come to the believer.
The Christians therefore chose Jan 6th as the day to commemorate Christ’s birth. This allowed for many religious celebrations throughout the Yule Festival that would ultimately lead to the religious mass on Jan. 6.
It wasn’t until the 16th Century that Christ’s Mass became changed through olde English spelling into what we know today as “Christmas”. Until 1752, the date set for Christmas continued to be Jan. 6th.
But in that year astronomers readjusted the calender In keeping with scientific knowledge and that brought the date forward to it’s present December 25th.
In the 8th Century the Christian conversion of pagan Germany was nearly complete. In a symbolic gesture, St. Boniface cut down the sacred oak tree of Odin. Behind it stood a small fir tree.
Since the fir was the traditional symbol of survival In Nordic religion, St. Boniface attempted to save the day by immediately dedicating the small fir tree to baby Jesus. The association stuck.
Legend states that Martin Luther was the first person to create a tree decorated with candles. His inspiration came after a walk through a forest of fir trees one star-lit winter evening. He was enchanted with the starlight glittering through the evergreen boughs.
Immediately he went home and attempted to reproduce the effect for himself and his children by placing small, lighted candles on a fir tree.
Even with it’s new religious significance tree decorating remained a localized tradition among the remnants of the Nordic races, especially in Germany where craftsmen greatly expanded the range of ornamentation. German candles, glass and lead light ornaments became true works of art.
Yet Christmas tree decorating would not become accepted in most of Europe and certainly In England until much later. Because at this point the holiday of Christmas was banned!
(for more read Christmas part 2)