This post I decided to tackle a controversial subject: the Design of Christmas and the symbolism that is associated with this holiday as it has evolved over time. Christmas excellent example of how symbols can take on different meaning depending on how they are used and the designs they support.
Christmas as we know it today began as annual Christian holiday that celebrates the birth of Jesus. It is traditionally celebrated on December 25th. In the United States, with its multicultural mix, Christmas has broadened in meaning with the celebration of Santa Claus which is non-denominational. In my family, for example, Christmas has always been a special time even though we are not religious.
But what few people realized is that the origins of Christmas and its symbolism are not Christian at all, virtually all traditional representations of Christmas began as part of Pagan rituals.
Historical debate has been raging for a long time over the exact date of the birth of Jesus Christ, with estimates ranging from sometime in September to much later in February. But the most important date in the festive season for Pagans is the winter solstice which always takes place around December 21. Called Yule, it is one of the traditional Celtic fire festivals and marks the return of the light after the longest night of the year.According to Pagans, the early Christian church adopted December 25 to celebrate the birth of Jesus because they saw that everyone was already having a good time and decided to take advantage of it.
This all started back in 800 AD — Christmas Day itself was a relatively minor holiday, although its prominence gradually increased after Charlemagne was crowned on Christmas Day in 800 AD. Northern Europe was the last part to Christianize, and its pagan celebrations had a major influence on …Christmas Day itself was a relatively minor holiday, although its prominence gradually increased after Charlemagne was crowned on Christmas Day in 800 AD. Northern Europe was the last part to Christianize, and its pagan celebrations had a major influence on Christmas. Scandinavians still call Christmas Jul (Yule), originally the name of a twelve-day pre-Christian winter festival. Logs were lit to honor Thor, the god of thunder, hence the “Yule log.”
In addition to the Yule Log, many other common Christmas symbols have Pagan or otherwise non-Christian origins:
The Christmas Tree
The earliest Christmas trees actually originated in Egypt and symbolized the triumph of life over death. The first traditional Christmas tree came from Germany. The trees were meant to symbolize the people’s hope for the coming spring and a good harvest. They also believed the trees warded off witches and evil spirits. The Christmas tree was not automatically accepted as a symbol in the Christian Christmas as it was thought to be a pagan symbol.
Many Pagan cultures used to cut boughs of evergreen trees in December, move them into the home or temple, and decorate them. This was to recognize the winter solstice — the time of the year that had the shortest daylight hours, and longest night of the year. This occurs annually sometime between DEC-20 to 23. As the days were gradually getting shorter; many feared that the sun would eventually disappear forever, and everyone would freeze. But, even though deciduous trees, bushes, and crops died or hibernated for the winter, the evergreen trees remained green. They seemed to have magical powers that enabled them to withstand the rigors of winter.
- Not having evergreen trees, the ancient Egyptians considered the palm tree to symbolize resurrection. They decorated their homes with its branches during the winter solstice.
- The first decorating of an evergreen tree began with the heathen Greeks and their worship of their god Adonia, who allegedly was brought back to life by the serpent Aessulapius after having been slain.
- The ancient Pagan Romans decorated their “trees with bits of metal and replicas of their god, Bacchus [a fertility god]. They also placed 12 candles on the tree in honor of their sun god” 2 Their mid-winter festival of Saturnalia started on DEC-17 and often lasted until a few days after the Solstice.
- In Northern Europe, the ancient Germanic people tied fruit and attached candles to evergreen tree branches, in honor of their god Woden. Trees were viewed as symbolizing eternal life. This is the deity after which Wednesday was named. The trees joined holly, mistletoe, the wassail bowl and the Yule log as symbols of the season.
Santa Claus is another symbol of Christmas that is a bit muddled in its history. Some people believe he is yet another attempt to change Pagan god’s into Christian acceptable alternatives, others believe Santa was a real person named Saint Nicholas born in the 4th century. Saint Nicholas would spread good will amongst men. He was a generous man that was said to be devoted to children in particular. The legend of the man spread throughout Europe and in Holland his name was transformed into Sinterklass.
According to the Pagans Santa Claus is actually a combination of the Roman god Neptune of the sea and Nickar the Teutonic God of the Harvest. He also pulls several attributes from other pagan gods. In the Christian faith it’s believed Santa was a bishop who later became a saint for his good deeds. Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of the sea and children. He is said to have used his fortune to give gifts to poor children on Christmas.
The Christmas stocking is said to have originated in a nobleman’s home who after the death of his wife squandered his fortune making it impossible for his three daughters to marry. Saint Nick, previously mentioned above felt pity on the girls and threw bags of coins down their chimney. Their stockings which had been hung there to dry by the fire caught the gifts. Stockings are still hung today to hold gifts from Santa Claus. They have no real symbolism.
Christmas Wreaths and/or Holly and Mistletoe
- The wreath is a pagan symbol of eternity. The circular shape of the Christmas wreath represents life’s never ending circle and the interconnection of all things. The pagans believed the wreaths would protect them from evil spirits and bring good luck.
- Traditionally holly and mistletoe was also hung in homes at Christmas and was believed to have healing properties to the inhabitants. However the Christian church banned this pagan tradition and began claiming the Christmas wreath of holly represented the never ending love of Christ.
- Mistletoe snuck back into the scene regardless of the ban at [[New Year’s]] rather than Christmas due to the mysterious Christmas superstition arising that it was bad luck during Christmas. The custom of kissing under the mistletoe comes from the Scandinavian goddess of love Frigga, whose plant is mistletoe.
Christmas presents being given began in ancient Rome during the winter solstice. Gifts were placed in evergreen trees to honor the sun god as well as bring the receiver luck and prosperity. Later gift giving was ascribed to the bringing of gifts at the birth of Jesus by the three kings.
More Christmas Symbols and Their Meanings
Christmas symbols, such as candles, bells, evergreens and mistletoe, are an integral part of our celebration of the holidays. However, many people don’t know the significance of these symbols or how they evolved.
- The first known use of bells at Christmas was in the Fourth Century AD. It is said that Bishop Paulinus of Nola, in Campania, Italy, first rang the bells to celebrate Christmas. The Latin word for bell, Campanula, comes from these words.
- Candles are used in many countries at Christmas to symbolize faith. Burning candles in the windows on Christmas Eve to welcome the Christ Child is an old Irish custom. In Norway, burning candles were said to radiate blessings.
- The custom of decorating a Christmas tree comes from Germany, where legend has it that Martin Luther cut a fir tree and brought it inside his house. Then he decorated it with lighted candles, to represent the stars
- The poinsettia has only been used as a Christmas symbol since 1836, when Joel Poinsett, Minister to Mexico, brought one to his South Carolina home. Mistletoe is used as a decoration, and of course a person standing under it can expect to be kissed. This custom may have grown from an old legend that if a girl doesn’t receive a kiss under the mistletoe, she won’t marry in the next year. The holly that decorates our homes was first used in early France and England. A sprig hanging above the door indicated a house in which Christ abided.
- Hanging stockings can be traced to Saint Nicholas, a bishop in Asia Minor in the Fourth Century. In a legend, he tossed gold down the chimney of a house where the three daughters were about to be sold into slavery because their poor father could not afford a dowry for them. The gold fell into their stockings, which were hung by the fire to dry.
- Holly: Holly was also used in Northern Europe to drive away evil spirits. It would be brought into their homes to brighten the mood and to refresh the air.
- Mistletoe: Mistletoe was used by Druid priests before the birth of Christ in winter celebrations. The plant had no roots, yet it remained green through the winter. The Celtics also believed that mistletoe had healing powers and used it as an antidote for infertility and to ward off evil spirits. They also believed that it was a symbol of peace. The Scandinavians believed the plant was associated with the goddess of love. They believed that those who kissed under the mistletoe would have a promise of luck an happiness in the new year.
- Christmas Cards: Christmas cards originated in England and were created by boys practicing their writing skills. They would make cards for their parents with Christmas greetings. The first real Christmas card is credited to Sir Henry Cole in 1843. He was the director of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. He commissioned an artist named John Calcott to draw an illustration that would be used on the card. The card had three panels. The center panel had a family enjoying Christmas festivities and the message said, “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You.” The cards were sent because he was too busy to send individualized messages to his friends.
- Xmas: Many people believe that the term “Xmas” is disrespectful. However, the Greek word fro Christ is Xristos. The letter “X” was used as a religious symbol in Greece. Europeans have used Xmas as an abbreviation for Christmas since the 16th century.
So this year as you celebrate, no matter your faith or creed, think of how the symbolism that surrounds this special time has a history of meaning and through the use and design of these symbols, their meaning has been adapted.