like many people I’ve wondered about the significance of this time of year. Here’s what I’ve found out. Feel free to comment. this post is not meant to be irreverent, merely to point out some interesting facts concerning the time of year.
What’s Christmas all about? Well, beginning with the word itself, Christmas, a contraction of Christ and Mass. No surprises there. So it’s the mass performed for Christ. After that we’re already getting into dubious territory. It’s meant to be the time for Christians to celebrate the birth of Jesus. Historically, from what I can gather, this doesn’t stack up. There are various estimates for the date of that event, ranging from October to June. It is highly unlikely that the actual date is December 25th, according to the Julian calendar, or any other calendar for that matter. So why December 25th?
For that we have to look at what the early Christian church in Europe was attempting to do. Various pagan european tribes were celebrating mainly at four astronomical points of the year. These were the spring equinox on March 20th, the summer solstice on June 21st, the autumnal equinox on September 22nd and last but not least, the winter solstice on December 21st.
Now easter ranges from the last week in March to the last week in April, between a few days and four weeks after vernal equinox, but that’s another story. The summer solstice falls on the birthday of John the Baptist, who the early church declared to be six months after the date of the birth of Jesus, but we’ve already seen that this date is open for discussion. Harvest festival is held on the sunday of the harvest moon closest to the autumnal equinox. we’re starting to get the picture. Yes, to stop the pagans celebrating their ancient rites and feasts, the church stuck its own set of festivals on the same dates. That way, it would be easier to convert the ‘heathen masses’. Not only that, the early church in Europe often built their abbeys, churches and cathedrals on top of the old pagan sacred sites.
So now we know why this time of year was picked, let’s have a peek at some of the seemingly unlinked practices that take place in mid winter.
Yuletide, as it is still often called. The word Yule is an ancient Celtic word meaning wheel. The celts and druids believed in a circle or wheel of life. The Yule. At winter solstice, when the sun is at its lowest, the wheel comes full circle. The old year dies and the sun is reborn to begin the next year. The druids spoke of an ‘old man of the year’. He was robed and grey and had horns like reindeer antlers. Sound familiar? The old man passed away on the night before solstice. He brought gifts to the people. His most important gift was the ‘Golden child of promise’, the infant who would grow into the new year. So a baby is born on the eve of solstice…interesting.
The druids lit a fire on the winter solstice and maintained it for twelve days. There’s the twelve days of Christmas for you. Many people wonder when it should start and end. I guess the answer is from December 21st to the first of January. Now this was a sacred fire. offerings of hazel nuts, apples, hog and holly were made before it. Then the pagans would have a jolly good feast, give each other gifts etc. When the yule fire was allowed to go out, one sacred log was removed from it and kept to relight the fire the following winter solstice…the yule log.
Holly and mistletoe were revered by the Celts because they were symbols of fertility, bearing fruit in mid winter. Ivy was also important for its evergreen properties. There’s the song ‘The holly and the ivy’. there also are the circular ‘Christmas wreaths made of holly, evergreen, ivy and mistletoe. Easy to understand now. they represent life and rebirth at Yuletide. They are circular to represent the wheel of life.
Mistletoe and kissing under it are also obvious. Just recall that mistletoe was a pagan winter fertility symbol. Nuts are traditional Christmas fare. Hazelnuts were given as an offering at the solstice ritual. A turkey dinner is relatively recent, but the idea of feasting at this time most certainly is not. Drinking alcohol isn’t either.
I hope that has been seasonal food for thought. Now at least you have an idea of where some of the odd ‘Christmas’ customs come from.