Here are 12 things most people don't know about Christmas dating back to our ancestors.
Whether you start decking the halls with holly on December 1st, or if you prefer to dodge the festive frenzy until the last minute - there's no escaping the build-up to Christmas Day. For some it's a religious celebration, for many it's about gathering the family together, for others it's just a welcome couple of days off work. But the traditions of this mid-winter festival stretch back into pre-history as our ancestors tried to light up the darkness of December with feasting and celebration - proving that the ancients loved a good party just as much as we do today!
1) Yule or Christmas?
Long before anyone sang 'Away in a Manger', Pagans were celebrating the feast of Yule, on the winter solstice, which is around December 21st. This winter fire festival marks the symbolic re-birth of the Sun, as dark nights begin to shorten. It is likely the early Christian Church chose December 25th as Christ's birthday to supersede this existing Pagan tradition.
2) Game of Thrones
According to Celtic myth, at this time of year an epic battle is fought on earth between the Holly king and the Oak king. The battle culminates at winter solstice when the Oak king vanquishes the Holly king, symbolising summer's victory over the darkness of winter. The waxing and waning strengths of the two kings represent the flow of the seasons.
3) Roman Rules
It wasn't just the Celts who celebrated a mid-winter festival. The Roman festival of Saturnalia was held in late December - with gift giving, feasting and charity offered to poorer members of society. The feast was named after Saturn, a god of farming and agriculture.
4) Sun God
The festival of Sun deity, Mithras, known as the god of light was celebrated on December 25. Followers of Mithras were members of a popular Persian cult contemporaneous to Christianity.
5) Berry Christmas
The dark green prickly leaves and red berries of the holly bush are strongly associated with Christmas. For Pagans holly was a powerful protector against evil spirits, so it was brought into the home at this dark and spooky time of year to guard against any unwelcome visitors.
6) Yule Log
Not originally the tasty chocolate pudding that you enjoy today! The Yule log was instead the Nordic tradition of burning a huge log throughout the 12 days of Christmas. This was intended to welcome the coming of the lighter, warmer months, and also symbolising a connection to Yggdrasil, the mythical Tree of Life.
7) Scary Santa?
The plump, jovial present-delivering character whom we now call Father Christmas, may have originated from a much more ferocious figure. The Norse war god, Odin, charged through the sky on his chariot, leading a wild hunt on the winter solstice. Norse children would leave carrots and sugar lumps near their chimney in case Odin's flying horse needed refreshment. Could this have been the fearsome prototype for Santa on his magical sleigh with his flying reindeers?
8) Christmas Tree
Evergreen trees, like spruce, pine or fir which are usually used as Christmas trees, symbolise eternal life. Many Pagan cultures decked their homes with evergreens during the winter months as a reminder of the spring season to come. Trees were sacred to the Druids. But the trend for Christmas trees in the modern era began when Prince Albert introduced his new wife, Britain's Queen Victoria, to his homeland tradition of bringing a tree indoors at Christmas. The royal couple were pictured in front of their Christmas tree and the nation rushed to copy them - some things don't change!
9) Magical Mistletoe
The Celts believed this white-berried plant could enhance fertility and bring good luck. It was associated with Freya the Norse goddess of love. So the modern idea of kissing under this Pagan fertility symbol suggests some ancient traditions are alive and well.
10) Christmas Carols
Carols may be a later version of the tradition of wassailing, where groups of singers walked around their town knocking at neighbours' doors to sing and drink to the health of the householders. The idea was to usher in good luck and health for the new year.
11) Bright Lights
The flashing lights that your neighbour invariably decorates every inch of the front of his house with hark back to Pagan tradition. The winter solstice is a fire festival, where bonfires and torches were lit to welcome the return of light to the world after a dark winter. The feast of the Roman god Sol Invictus, meaning the unconquered Sun, was celebrated around December 25th.
12) Peace & Goodwill
During the First World War soldiers came out of the trenches on Christmas Eve 1914 to shake hands, exchange gifts, sing carols, greetings, play a game of football and ceased fighting for about 48 hours. This event is known as the Christmas Truce and it is a poignant expression of humanity and goodwill.
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