*Photo Credit: Tobias Huske
I’ve been fascinated with the origins of our modern holidays for many years now. I recently wrote an article about the origins of Halloween, which you can check out here.
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Unlike Halloween, which was a cultural celebration, the winter and summer solstices (along with spring and fall equinoxes) are celestial events marking the position of the sun in relation to the earth. The day of the winter solstice has the shortest day and longest night of the year. On our modern calendar, the winter solstice happens around the 21st of December. The days grow longer after the winter solstice, until they peak in June at the summer solstice, which has the longest day and shortest night of the year.
Because our ancestors lived so close to the earth, they relied on their knowledge of seasonal weather patterns in order to successfully grow crops and raise livestock
People from all over the world celebrated the solstice, but many of our modern Christmas holiday traditions come directly from pre-Christian Europe, specifically from Scandinavia and Germany.
To the Norse people, the solstice was a major holiday. Yule (or Jul) was a 12 day festival filled with feasting, singing, and celebrating the return of the light of the sun to the world. The centerpiece of the feast was the Yule ham, a tradition that has endured to this day as the Christmas ham, served today in many modern households. Yule singing is another element that continues to this day as caroling.
The modern Christmas tree comes from Germany, but evergreen branches were used to decorate homes long before that, because the evergreens symbolized eternal life and the rebirth of the sun.
Hanging mistletoe also has its roots in an ancient Norse legend. The sun god Baldur represented goodness and light and was loved by everyone. Baldur’s father Odin heard of a prophesy that his beloved son was in danger. The other gods cast spells of protection so that no living creature on earth could cause Baldur any harm. However, they missed one plant whose roots didn’t touch the earth: mistletoe. The trickster god Loki fashioned an arrow of mistletoe and tricked the blind god Hodr into shooting and killing Baldur with it. Fortunately, the other gods were able to resurrect their most beloved friend, and the mistletoe itself swore to never hurt anyone again. After that, mistletoe became the symbol of love. Keep this story in mind the next time you kiss under the mistletoe!
Santa Claus as we know him seems to be a mash-up of the 4th century saint from what is now Turkey, old English Father Christmas, and the Norse god Odin, who rode across the sky with his eight-legged horse Sleipnir. Both Odin and Saint Nicholas were known for giving gifts; Odin also wore a long white beard and furred robes, coming from the far north.
These traditions spread to the British Isles when Saxons and then Vikings arrived on the scene. Native Brits adopted and integrated the customs of the north folk, and later, Roman Christianity. Because the solstice celebrates the return of the light to the world, it was easy for people to accept and integrate the Christian priests’ stories of Jesus’s birth with the winter solstice.
Today, many of us are disconnected with the forces of nature. We spend a great deal of time indoors, where we control our environment, rather than our natural environment controlling us. But along with our modern celebrations with tinsel and twinkly lights, it’s also nice to experience the natural world. A very simple way to acknowledge the solstice is to spend the longest night the way our ancestors did, with friends and family and good food, with plenty of candles blazing, or a fire in the hearth. You can rise at dawn and go outside to greet the sun in the morning and acknowledge the larger forces that shape our world that we have lately become so disconnected from. Say hello to the sun and give thanks to Life for warmth, love, and all the things that are dear to you.
A drink to keep you warm on the longest night is to simmer Naked Chai in wine or apple cider, with fresh slices of orange and ginger root. For the morning, brew some black tea and sweeten with a candy cane for a minty delicious brew.
What are some of your family traditions? We’d love to hear your stories!