Christmas symbols and their not so Christmas origins
We see them everywhere. Christmas symbols remind us of the festive holidays filled with parties, gift giving, lots of food and more. The real thing is, Christmas – without the commercialization and secularization – is a Christian celebration. Hence, it is not surprising to connect the Christmas symbols with Christianity. However, as time rolled by, new Christmas symbols sprang up from different popular traditions around the world.
They existed 200 years before the birth of Christ. The druid priests revered the Mistletoe plant. The leaves were used to heal poison and infertility and to drive evil spirits away. The tradition of kissing under the mistletoe could be traced back to the time when the Scandinavians associated the plant to their goddess of love named Frigga. Lovers who kissed under the mistletoe were believed to have a good luck for the coming year. For Romans, Mistletoe was a symbol of peace. It is said that their enemies dropped their weapons under the plant.
The tradition of burning the Yule log in the hearth was practiced by the pagans in Germany before the Christianization period. Historians believe that it was part of the Anglo-Saxon pagan customs in the 6th and 7th century. It is also associated with the ancient winter solstice fire festival which was widely observed in Europe. Eventually, it became a practical household item due to the cold weather on Christmas day.
We might know Saint Nicholas, who was a bishop in Myra, was the inspiration behind this well-known character. It sounds very religious, is it? Yet, it would probably be surprising to learn that the 4th century bishop didn’t have those flowing white beard and popular red suit. Legends about the generous saint evolved into something folkloric and historical at the same time. Americans were the first to regard him as Santa Claus, merging Saint Nicholas and the famous English character Father Christmas. It is also said that Santa Claus was a combination of Saint Nicholas and Odin, a tough old pagan God.
In Russia, it is said that legends about Saint Nicholas circulated all the way to Lapland, Finland 600 years after the bishop’s death. Lapland is known to be home for reindeers. Reindeers were not associated to Santa Claus until the publication of the poem “The Night before Christmas” which talked about St. Nick who called each one of the reindeers by name.
The origin of Christmas Tree can be traced back to Egypt where midwinter festivals were held to honor Horus, son of Isis, the goddess of Fertility and Motherhood. The evergreens also represented immortality and fortitude among Chinese and Hebrews. European druids and pagans also used to worship the trees. The meaning of Christmas tree evolved into something Biblical when Christians started attributing it to the tree of forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden – the reason why it is usually adorned with apples and other fruits.
Whatever their origins are, these symbols have certainly become an essential part of our Christmas celebrations. We accept the fact that they help us feel the joy which the season brings to everyone, believers and non-believers alike.