"I am the Ghost of Christmas Past," said the Spirit. "Look upon me!"
- "A Christmas Carol" by Charles Dickens
For most of us, the holidays are a welcome relief from the stresses of life, occurring as they do in the middle of a dreary winter. We throw ourselves into the celebrations, decking the halls, putting up a Christmas tree and kissing under the mistletoe. But though we embrace these traditions in the spirit of the season, many are unaware of their ancient roots. Few of us realize that the same quaint customs that add to our holiday feelings of warmth and togetherness, are rooted in ancient pagan beliefs and have as much to do with otherworldly spirits as well as modern day ones.
Take for instance the hanging of greens to decorate your home. Evergreens in ancient times were cherished at this time of year as a natural symbol of rebirth and life. Holly was particularly prized to decorate doors, windows and fireplaces because of its prickliness - to either ward off or snag and capture evil spirits before they could enter and harm a household.
The Yule log is one tradition that dates from the pre-Christian era and is steeped in magical lore. The Yule log figured in both as a symbol of the life that would soon return to the earth and as the source of light and needed warmth during the winter season. The sacred flame provided protection from evil spirits during the dark nights and the remains of the fire were prized for their magical properties in the curing of certain illnesses. Today, our Yule log is just as likely to be of the edible variety, a cake roll covered in chocolate and decorated with holly leaves and other seasonal symbols. A far cry from its origins, but a nice custom nonetheless.
Kissing under the mistletoe? Mistletoe was used in folk medicine to cure many ills. North American Indians used it for toothaches, measles and dog bites. The ancient Celts and Norsemen revered it for its great magical properties. The druids gathered it using a golden sickle to cut the mistletoe to enhance its energies. It was also popular as a protection against evil spirits. Hung over the cradle of a newborn, it was said to protect the child from being taken by the fairies.
Decorating a tree for Christmas as many of us do this time of year? In Northern Europe, the ancient Germanic people tied fruit and attached candles to evergreen tree branches, in honor of their god Woden. Later in the Middle Ages, Germans and Scandinavians placed evergreen trees inside their homes to show hope for the coming of spring. Legend has it that Martin Luther began the tradition of decorating trees to celebrate Christmas. One Christmas Eve, about the year 1500, he was walking through the woods and was struck by the beauty of a group of small evergreens. Their branches, dusted with snow, shimmered in the moonlight. When he got home, he set up a little fir tree indoors so he could share this story with his children. He decorated it with candles, which he lighted in honor of Christ's birth.
With the season of seasons upon us, I hope that you can find a reason to celebrate, no matter what religious beliefs that you have. This is the time to celebrate, reflect and make some spirited memories!