For most of us, the holidays are about exchanging gifts, getting together with family, lighting candles, and generally making merry. It's fun, but it's not life and death. But did you know that the holiday season used to be a life or death situation?
Tribal people feared the loss of daylight in the winter, wondering whether the days would eventually become so short that they would live in perpetual darkness. When they discovered that the Winter Solstice marked the return of the sun, they celebrated with midwinter festivals.
Pagans later picked up this celebration by burning the Yule log at Winter Solstice to emulate and attract the sun. Here are some other great pre-Christian roots of our modern holidays:
Mistletoe: Druids valued this plant for its healing powers and as a symbol of peace. Enemies would stand under Mistletoe to make peace compacts, sealing them with a kiss.
Merry Making: Romans marked midwinter with Saturnalia, a seven day festival of gift giving, drinking, and feasting (typically around December 17). Saturn is the god of agriculture and plenty, and was celebrated after the fall crops had been sown. Gift giving symbolized the redistribution of wealth from the rich to the poor during the season of hardship.
Wreath: Originally the wreath was a pagan fire wheel made from greens that symbolized life. Some made great wheels, set them on fire, and rolled them down hills.
Tree: The tree was originally Yggdrasil, the World Tree that symbolized life. The roots and branches of the tree were thought the hold the universe together. Early people decorated the tree, which stood before the house of the gods, with small lamps that held bowls of fat and cedar wicks, much as we decorate our trees today.
While the Christian holiday traditions are far from the only traditions celebrated around winter solstice, they are very predominant in Western society. It's good to know where these traditions come from and what they originally meant. In all, these celebrations stood for peace, honoring, revival of life, and the return of the sun.