The Pagan Origins of Christmas Decorations

 

Reproduced from original paintings by Anne Stokes

The Pagan Origins of Christmas Decorations

Traditions at Christmas from the Celtic Festival of Yule

JOANNE E. BRANNAN

Many people enjoy Pagan Christmas traditions without knowing of their origins. From the Yule wreath to candles and lights, ancient practices abound at Christmas.

Fairy lights and evergreen decorations are essential decorations in many households at Christmas. Wonderfully evocative in the darkest period of the year, they are remnants of very old pre-Christian beliefs about the return of the sun and the stillness of the midwinter.

Significance of Holly at Christmas

Pagans celebrate the rebirth of the sun at midwinter, rather than the birth of the Son of God celebrated by Christians at this time. The renewed ascent of the sun in the sky beginning at the winter solstice was symbolically reenacted as a battle between the oak tree of the summer and the holly tree of the winter.

The bright red berries of the holly bush represented fertility in the depths of the dormant winter, a promise of the return of light, warmth and light.

Celtic Fire Festival of Yule

The Winter Solstice occurs on December 21 in the Northern hemisphere, June 21 in the Southern Hemisphere. Known as the Festival of Yule to pagans, the winter solstice is the shortest day, and the longest night of the year. The Celtic fire festival of Yule was a time of renewal and rebirth, celebrated by lighting fires to welcome back the lengthening days. The remnants of this practice may be found in the charming tradition of the Yule log, still enjoyed by many people at Christmas even today.

The lighting of candles and modern Christmas lights is also a relic of this ancient need to bring light to the darkest time of the year, and even in this era of electric lights that dispel the gloom all year round, many people still enjoy the warming feeling of seeing a beautifully lit tree or an array of lighted candles.

Origins of the Christmas Wreath

The circle of the Yule or Christmas wreath represents the pagan “Wheel of the Year” or “Circle of Life” that marks the annual changes in the seasons at the Festivals celebrated at the solstices and equinoxes.

An ancient belief concerning the Pagan festival of Yule is that the wheel of the year stops briefly at this time of the winter solstice. It was taboo to turn a wheel, or even a butter churn, on the shortest day. Traditionally, a Yule wreath is made with holly and ivy, two plants that work in magical harmony to provide protection to any household with a Christmas wreath on the door.

Ancient Pagan traditions have been seamlessly adopted into the modern Christian Festival, and no doubt boughs of ever green plants and the light of a flame bring hope and warmth to modern man in the depths of winter just as they did to the ancients.

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