Christmas has evolved over the centuries into a materialistic all-consuming secular event that often leads to people becoming stressed, anxious and/or depressed. The true meaning gets obscured by the demands of others that expect expensive gifts, perfect food prepared and a perception that everyone is having a better time than you. As Europeans, we need to take back our heritage that is being subverted by commercialism. Taking a moment to reflect on our old traditions, let’s delve into a time gone by and see how we can reincorporate them into the modern day.
Pre Christianity, the celebration at this time of year was the Winter Solstice; the longest night of the year. In the days that follow, the sun will stay a little longer in the sky. It was a time to rejoice in the return or rebirth of the sun that would warm the earth and reveal what had been hidden.
A Yule log is one of many ceremonies. It was not meant to be bought but harvested from your land or given as a gift. This log would then be decorated in seasonal greenery, ale or cider pour over it and dusted with flour before being set on fire using a piece of last year’s Yule log.
For the past several years, we have created our own family tradition based on the Yule log. With our Christmas tree, we cut a small piece off the end of the trunk, which gets stored away for the following year. The next Christmas eve, we retrieve last year’s piece of tree trunk and our children decorate it. This is then placed in our blazing open fire. As it burns, we give thanks for the past year and for the new year ahead. The next morning when the ashes are cold we sprinkle this ‘magical’ ash at the base of our fruit trees as an offering for a good harvest. On Boxing Day, we make a visit to our ancestor’s graves where we sprinkle more ‘magical’ ash from our Yule log fire. With the yule log being stored for a year in the log store outside our house, I feel that the wood gets imbued with the energy of our family life. By performing this ritual, we include the deceased in all that has happened in the past year.
Mistletoe has magical properties as a healer and protector. It was carefully cut to ensure that it did not touch the earth. Mistletoe was thought of as a plant that lives between worlds, between heaven and earth. The white berries represent male fertility which is apparently where kissing under the mistletoe comes from. We hang a small piece of mistletoe in the door way of our home and kiss as we pass under it. The physical connection reminds us that we are a family, giving us a sense of oneness.
Holly is another plant of protection with its spikey leaves that repel unwanted spirits. The berries represent female fertility and together with mistletoe it embodies the sacred marriage of the rebirth of the sun. We make a wreath of holly and fir gathered from our local country park which we place on our front door. Earlier this year, I gathered four small fir cones which I am going to add to represent the four seasons, this seems fitting as the wreath symbolises the Wheel of Life.
Pine is a tree of healing and joy. The modern Christmas tree has roots in our pagan traditions and has evolved over the centuries into what we see today. Pines and firs symbolise rebirth and life in winter months. Many families would bring live trees into their home so the wood spirits have somewhere to keep warm during the cold months. Food was hung from the branches so the spirits had something to eat. We decorate our Christmas tree with the colours of red and gold to represent the returning sun. I do not hang food from our tree as I don’t want the wood spirits to get accidently eaten by our Labrador!
Gift giving was important to our ancestors, and gifts of food and drink were given to family, friends and neighbours. We often give our family members food gifts that I’ve made, such as chutneys, jams or sweets. We also buy local food products that we use for gifts; I feel then that I am supporting my local businesses. Plant-based gifts were another popular gift. We’ve given roses and fruit bushes in homemade planters made from silver birch. I have found that the receivers of these gifts often comment months later that their gooseberry bush is fruiting or that their roses are blooming.
Christmas does not belong to the uncaring, self-serving institutions on the high street. It belongs to us, the Europeans. We are from a long line of ancestors that followed traditions to build families and communities by connecting to our lands and the seasons. This is a time to give thanks for who we are and what we have. So, let’s take ownership of our Christmas celebrations as we welcome back the returning Sun.
Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.