Christmas is the biggest festival of our year. Throughout history other festivals have come and gone and some have been lost in the mists of time, but Christmas is as popular now as it has ever been. The Christmas that we know and love in Britain today is a charismatic mix of relatively modern traditions combined with the Christmas story of Jesus born in a stable. But there are also ancient traditions that are still part of our celebrations that predate Christianity and have their roots in completely different beliefs.
Pagan religions believed that all evergreens had special powers to keep evil at bay and bring good fortune. During the pagan festival of Saturnalia in December when they celebrated the re-birth of the sun, boughs of evergreen were laid in the Greek and Roman temples to ward off evil spirits, appease the gods and provide abundant harvests. During the festival there was much dressing up, feasting, dancing and generally making merry.
With the rise of Christianity, Saturnalia and many of its practices were taken over by the early Christians who made it into their own festival in celebration of the birth of Christ. Evergreens of all varieties continued to be brought into churches and homes for decoration but also because many still believed in their potent power.
Holly and Mistletoe
Holly, sometimes called Christ-thorn, was considered particularly holy and the sharp thorns especially effective in protecting against witches and other evil spirits making it the most popular evergreen for churches and homes. However, mistletoe did not meet with the churches' approval because it of its close ties to paganism. It was greatly revered by the pagans who believed it could increase sexual power and cure infertility. For a time the churches tried to ban it and would not let it inside their buildings but it continued to be hung above doorways of homes to ward off evil spirits and to cadge secret kisses.
The Yule log was part of the pagan celebration of the Winter Solstice and the Roman festival Saturnalia in December when they celebrated the rebirth of the sun with a lot of high jinks, dressing up, feasting and exchanging gifts - a great way of cheering up the harsh winter days. This festival proved so popular that in time it became a week long party during which the ceremonial fires had to be kept alight using large slow burning Yule logs. There are some wonderful myths about the Yule log, but those are stories to be told another time.
The tradition of the fir tree began in Germany in AD 718 when St Boniface travelled from England to convert the pagans. Oak trees were sacred to the pagans so, in a symbolic gesture to show that he meant business, on Christmas Eve in the city of Geismar he cut down a sacred oak and in its place he planted a fir tree to represent the new faith.
Long before the introduction of the Christmas tree, the trees associated with winter festivals were called Paradise Trees or Christ-Trees. They were festooned with edible decorations such as a fruit, nuts, sweets and pastries in various shapes to represent the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden. Some were decorated with paper roses in red and white to represent the Virgin Mary. The Medieval custom was to parade them around the town in a great procession before setting the tree alight, a tradition particularly popular in northern and eastern Europe as part of their mystery plays.
Trees only started to be brought indoors in the 1500s when there arose a fashion in Germany to cut off the top of a fir and hang it upside down from the ceiling. This became so popular that there was concern that the forests would damaged by the extent of the tree lopping and councils tried to pass laws to ban the practice.
The Christmas tree as we know it, complete with decorations and lights, is credited to Martin Luther. The great 16th century German preacher, was inspired when walking home through a snowy wood one Christmas Eve by the twinkling of the stars through the fir trees, an image he decided to recreate at home by placing lighted candles in a small fir tree. The fashion soon caught on in Germany and quickly spread to other European countries, however, it was slower to establish in Britain. It was not until the mid 1800s with the marriage of Queen Victoria to her German cousin, Prince Albert, that the Christmas tree became established as an essential part of a British Christmas.