Santa familyMany of the traditions and symbols that we cherish during the Christmas season trace their origins back to the solstice festivals of ancient peoples, which celebrated the returning of light after the long period during which the days had grown shorter and shorter. The early Christian Church initially repressed many of these practices, but they proved too popular and tenacious to be ignored for long. In time, the Church came to acknowledge that the deeper meanings within the old rites had much in common with the beliefs that were held sacred by the followers of Christ.

One important forerunner of the Christmas tradition that we know was the Roman festival called Saturnalia, which is actually older than Roman recorded history. Saturnalia was celebrated with feasting, songs and processions, and some of its trappings were symbols that are familiar to us today: gift giving, the lighting of candles, and the hanging of green wreaths. The early Church frowned upon gift giving at first, but because the practice kept cropping up it was finally sanctioned and used as a way of commemorating the gifts of the Magi to the infant Jesus. This became a widely followed custom by the 12th century.

Evergreens had long served as symbols of immortality, because they endured winters unscathed, and early Greeks and Romans associated the wreath with glory and victory. By placing a lighted candle in the middle of a wreath, the Church demonstrated the Light of the World (Christ) returning after the darkest days of the year.

Another strong influence on our modern Christmas holiday was the Yule festivals celebrated by northern European peoples, including the Saxons and Goths. The Yule log – now immortalized in our popular folklore – was lit by the lord of the castle, using a piece of wood carefully preserved from the previous years’ log, at the winter solstice festival. The forerunner of our own Yuletide fire was much larger; the Goths often burned the entire trunk of a large tree. During this festival, a group of singers would entertain the court. They were called the Waits, because their duty was to watch and call out the hours. By the sixteenth century, the Waits were associated with people who went from house to house singing Christmas carols, and eventually they became known simply as carolers.

Holly, ivy and mistletoe were symbols of life in early times because they were evergreen and bore fruit in the winter. Mistletoe was held sacred in Scandinavia, and during the Yule time enemies were known to make peace beneath its branches. The Church eventually sanctified Holly – and a legend grew up around it, relating how the once white berries had been transformed to blood red when Christ had been crowned with the thorny branches of holly.

Perhaps it is the antiquity of many of the symbols and images that we associate with it that has contributed to what we call the “Christmas spirit”. Certainly, celebrations in honor of the returning light seem to be nearly as old as mankind. Though they have been recast in many forms over the ages, their life-affirming message still strikes a chord deep within the human heart.