The Story Behind Holiday Traditions

IMG_0853Written by Mid-Atlantic Team Member:

Maevelin Y.

Mist and cloud and darkness veil the wintry hour,
But the sun dispels them with his rising power.
Mist and cloud and darkness often dim thy day
But a Christmas glory shines upon thy way.
May the Lord of Christmas, Counsellor and Friend,
Light thy desert pathway even to the end. – F. R. Havergal

What do you think of when you hear the word Christmas? What’s the first thing you think of? Santa? Jesus? Commercialization?  I know personally that when I think of Christmas my mind plays a bit of tug of war between warm thoughts of snuggling into my favorite spot on the couch with my hot chocolate and favorite blanket, reading in the glow of the Christmas tree lights and the harsh thoughts of pushing my way through the masses in an overly decorated department store to find things that fit my budget to give to my children who will just give all the credit to Santa anyway. So many people, myself included, rush through the holidays and very rarely slow down to think about what we are doing, much less why we are doing it. Tradition has become habit and the reasons for our holiday traditions have become cloudy.

Happy-SaturnaliaTo grasp a solid understanding of how our holiday traditions unfurled, one must first go back to the age before the holidays were considered “holy days”. A time where the mere rising and setting of the sun was a magical feat. In winter, the nights are long and the sun is low. The winter solstice is the longest night of the year and it is a pivot point from which the light of the sun will grow stronger.  Many viewed this time of year as a representation of the death and subsequent re-birth of Sun and Light. The Romans called it Dies Natalis Invicti Solis or the Birthday of the Unconquered Sun. They celebrated this midwinter holiday with the festival of Saturnalia. Riotous, and somewhat promiscuous, merry making took place, for during this time no criminal was prosecuted and one could anything he or she pleased. Houses were decked with boughs of laurel and evergreen trees. Friends visited one another, bringing good-luck gifts and processions of people danced through the streets wearing masks. Sound somewhat familiar?

The continued darkness also prompted people to believe that winter solstice was a time when the spirits were able to travel and roam the earth. This led to the lighting of candles and lanterns to keep the spirits at bay and bells were also used as protection from the evil spirits. While many people believe that ghosts and ghost stories are centered on Halloween, in Victorian times, Halloween was only the beginning of the season of the dead. My thoughts can’t help but be drawn to the 1963 classical song “It’s the Most Wonderful time of the Year”… “There’ll be scary ghost stories and tales of the glories of Christmases long, long ago….. It was common practice to gather around the fire on Christmas Eve and tell ghost stories. This goes hand in hand with the belief that you must wait till midnight on Christmas Eve and swing open the doors of your home to let out all the unwanted spirits.

Many of the Christmas traditions that we adhere to today took root long ago in the beliefs of YuleViking, Celtic, and Roman Gods. The Vikings used to burn a giant Sunwheel which, after being set on fire, was rolled down a hill to entice the Sun into returning and according to some, this can be attributed to the origin of the Christmas wreath. The Vikings decorated evergreens to entice the tree spirits to come back in the spring and they even burned the traditional Yulelog after carving runes on it to ask the God’s for protection of misfortune.  The ancient Celtics celebrated the festival of Alban Arthuan which is also known as Yule. They held to the belief that burning the Yule Log to honor the Great Mother Goddess would bring good luck. They frequently decorated pine trees with various stellar objects to represent the souls of those who had died in the previous year.

Anyone with a little curiosity can discover a whole treasure trove of Christmas lore across the ages. From the Krampus to the White Lady, Kris Kringle to Belsnickle the histories are endless. This season while amidst the holiday craziness find a minute to just stop and take it all in. Take a minute to enjoy the wonder and mystery of a holiday that is about so much more than we all know. Take a few minutes to discover for yourself, the true meaning of Christmas.

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