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Christmas Past

When the month of December begins, everyone's thoughts turn to decorating their houses with holly, ivy, evergreen trees, and innumerable lights. It's a yearly tradition, one that kids discover and adults rediscover, as anticipation and nostalgia take hold and color the holiday season a warm and cozy feeling of peace and goodwill.

Do we wonder about where these traditions and icons of the holiday season originate? About why we buy cut trees, bring them home, decorate them with colorful ornaments? About why we light candles and give gifts? Why we send cards and talk of old men with white beards?

Any devout Christian will tell you that we do it to celebrate the birth of Christ, and a tale will be told about three wise men, their priceless gifts, and the north star. The Jewish reason for celebration is even more interesting, involving a battle that was waged long before the Christ child was born, where during the repurification of a temple, a holy light stayed lit for eight days*.

But people have been celebrating winter holidays for even longer than that.

Before Christ, Before Written History

Imagine a world out of your control. Travel is limited to walking; clothing is limited to what you can skin from animals you kill; and food is limited to what you can hunt, gather, or cultivate with your own bare hands. In this kind of world, you're a slave to the seasons, and when the season turns cold, you despair.

You despair because the food and warmth dwindles. The days grow shorter, and if you're extremely primitive, that means you'll spend two-thirds of each day in darkness and cold.

Now imagine people like the ones who put up Stonehenge, people who have learned that the seasons are cyclical and can be tracked by watching the sky. These people know that for a while, the days will grow shorter and shorter, until the day is as short as it can possibly be that year, and then the days will grow longer and longer again.

Because they want to look forward to spring and the abundance that accompanies the pleasant season, these people wait with bated breath for that special day: the shortest day of the year, the longest night. This is most commonly called the solstice, and the belief in those ancient times was that on the solstice, the sun begins to fight back.

Isn't Hope a powerful thing? That's basically what the winter holidays were all about: hope for the sun's return, for warmer weather, for abundance, and for life. Additionally, whatever life survived the death of winter was celebrated -- evergreen trees, for instance.

From this, sprung everything else.

Yuletide and the Christmas Tree

Ever wonder where the word "yuletide" came from? The Scandinavian god of the sun, Frey, was thought to roll across the sky like a wheel, so the sun was called a wheel, or jul (yul). Tide, of course, comes from tite, or time.

There was the view that during this "time of the sun", Frey stands still for 12 days, so people would build a fire to last 12 nights, using the trunk of an oak tree.

Yep, you guessed it: that was the yule log -- 6 feet tall, 8 to 10 feet wide. Thor's tree. In the end, they'd save a scrap of it, wrap it up, and save it for the next year to use in starting the next fire, a ritual that was supposed to bring good luck.

People would also feast on a huge wild boar and goldenbristle, both of which would represent the sun and its rays. Their priests, called druids, would hang golden apples and put lit candles on the ash tree*, which was sacred to Frey. Each apple would represent the sun, and the candles would represent the light of the sun; the tree was called the world tree.

In the Middle Ages, the Christians borrowed from this ritual, and the tree became the paradise tree, representing the apple tree in the garden of Eden. Martin Luther was supposed to have seen stars in the tree, after which he put candles on the branches, and he was given credit for the practice.

These days we have ham or turkey, rather than wild boar, and we hang ornaments on trees we either buy ready-cut at the shopping mall parking lot or assemble from a plastic kit.

As for our other rituals, read on...