Across the world Christmas has many different meanings. For most of us it is a time to eat excessive amounts of food and open presents, whilst for others it is an occasion to celebrate the birth of the Christian God. However neither of these are the true meanings of the world’s oldest festival; Christmas is a festival born out of the natural world…
Initially the birth of Christ was celebrated at many different times across the year as no one knew which day he was supposedly born on. For an infant church trying to establish its authority it chose an already popular festival to hijack and convert into its own celebration. And so the old pagan festival was rebranded and given a new meaning, but its ancient traditions were allowed to endure.
Christmas, in its many names, came into being almost the soon as prehistoric people entered Europe from Africa. In a desperate need to explain the natural world around them they created their spirits and gods to create a sense of meaning. The reason that Christmas falls on the 25th of December is the greatest legacy of these ancient beliefs and can be found in the skies above us. The 21st of December as many of you will know is the winter solstice or the shortest day of the year. In a world where winter represented hunger, death and misery the people desperately wished for the sun’s return.
For the succeeding three days after the solstice all the days remain a similar length however when we get to the 25th it is a very different story. The day which Christmas sits on is the first day of the solar calendar when the sun is noticeably longer in the sky, so to the starving people this was the sign they were waiting for. The sun was returning! This event was so important to the ancient people that they raised the great stone circles and aligned them for this day and feasted long into night. In the end these festivals became formalised by the Romans who introduced decorations and the giving of presents. Their holiday of Dias Natalis Solus Invicty (Birthday of the Unconquered Sun) is the template of our modern day celebrations.
In Northern Europe a very different festival emerged which later became amalgamated into Christmas although it’s central belief couldn’t be more different. Yule was essentially the Old Norse festival of the dead and has contributed greatly to our modern day celebrations.
The Twelve days of Christmas may nowadays be sung about fondly in carols but their origins are not something you really want to remember. As the twelve days of Yule fall on the darkest days of the year the people came to the rather grim conclusion that this was the time when the dead could rise up and try and kill the living. Villagers would often live in terror of Draugr (zombie like creatures) who were supposed to kill all in their path.
On a slightly merrier note the Norse villagers developed another belief to help them see the light at the end of the tunnel. As evergreen trees were the only signs of life in a barren world they became targets for bands of villagers who would put them in their houses to act as a symbol of enduring life. However they didn’t decorate them like we do; they instead tipped them upside down and hung them from the ceiling!