Most of the customs, lore, symbols, and rituals associated with "Christmas" actually are linked to Winter Solstice celebrations of ancient Pagan cultures. While Christian mythology is interwoven with contemporary observances of this holiday time, its Pagan nature is still strong and apparent. Emperor Aurelian established December 25 as the birthday of the "Invincible Sun" in the third century as part of the Roman Winter Solstice celebrations. Shortly thereafter, in 273, the Christian church selected this day to represent the birthday of Jesus, and by 336, this Roman solar feast day was Christianized. January 6, celebrated as Epiphany in Christendom and linked with the visit of the Magi, was originally an Egyptian date for the Winter Solstice.
We decorate our homes with lights, greens, and holiday colors. This is a time to strengthen bonds with family and friends by visiting and/or exchanging gifts and greetings. If you are part of a group, you might take up a collection of food and/or clothing at your Holiday gathering and give what you collected to a social service agency to distribute to the needy. Place sunflower seeds outside for wild birds to feast upon. Greet the Sun at dawn on Solstice morning by ringing bells. Set your intention for a more peaceful planet, and a festival of inner renewal. Bless your home with a wreath on your front door and sprigs of mistletoe inside.
Decorating with evergreens is a colorful tradition with a symbolic past. From ancient times, plants that stayed green throughout the dead of winter were a symbol of life, for both Christians and other religions. Evergreens symbolize Continuity of Life, Protection, and Prosperity. Wreaths displayed at Christmas time are in the form of a circle, signifying eternity. They also serve to wish people happiness in the new year. The evergreen represents eternal life in Christ. Wreaths on the door mean "welcome."
Christmas wreaths are decorated with candles symbolizing the sun at winter solstice, along with holly, evergreens, red berries, and pine cones, representing the harvest, which may have originated in ancient Rome.
Mistletoe is considered one of the most magical, mysterious and sacred plants of European folklore. Celtic druids as well as Greeks believed it could bestow life and fertility, protect against poison and serve as an aphrodisiac. In Scandinavia, mistletoe was considered a plant of peace under which enemies could declare a truce or fighting spouses could reconcile. Kissing under the mistletoe originated during the Greek festival of Saturnalia. Later, the 18th-century English developed the kissing ball. At Christmastime, a young lady standing under a ball of mistletoe cannot refuse to be kissed. If she remains unkissed, she cannot expect to marry the following year.
Holly and ivy were used in pre-Christian times to help celebrate the Winter Solstice Festival, ward off evil spirits and celebrate new growth. Holly is considered a "man's plant," believed to bring good luck and protection to men, while ivy brings the same to women. Holly is used for protection, good luck and to invoke Wood Spirits.
According to Christian beliefs, Evergreen Holly symbolizes eternal life. Legend has it that one winter night, the holly miraculously grew leaves out of season in order to hide the holy family from Herod's soldiers. The prickly leaves represent the crown of thorns that Jesus wore when he was crucified; the berries are drops of blood he shed. In Scandinavia, holly is known as the Christ Thorn. Ivy must cling to something to support itself as it grows, reminiscent of the need to cling to God for support in our lives.
Pagan Romans believed Laurel was sacred to the sun god Apollo. The first Christians in ancient Rome decorated their homes at the Saturnalia with laurel and when Christianity became more popular in Rome, it became a symbol of Christmas. Laurel has been worn as a wreath on the head for thousands of years to symbolize success and victory. More specifically, it represents the victory of God over the Devil.
During the Middle Ages, Rosemary was used by housewives to spread on the floor at Christmas time. As people walked on it, a pleasant aroma arose. Legend has it that the shrub is fragrant because the Virgin Mary laid the garments of the Christ Child on its branches. The night he was born, the trees suddenly bore fruit and flowers blossomed out of season. Rosemary is also known as the herb of remembrance.
Here is a short list of some additional herbs and materials you might want to incorporate as you create your wreaths, centerpieces and arrangements of holiday greenery:
• symbolizes New Solar Year; Waxing Sun; endurance, strength, triumph, protection, good luck
• forms: Yule log, acorns, wood for sacred fires
• divinities: Oak King; Oak Spirit; Sky Gods including Thor, Jupiter, Zeus
• traditions: Teutonic, Celtic, Christian
• symbolizes the Sun, purification, consecration, protection, spiritual illumination
• forms: incense, oils
• divinities: Sun Gods, Ra at Dawn, Bel
• traditions: Babalyonian, Assyrian, Egyptian, Jewish, Greek, Roman, Christian
• symbolizes healing, death and afterlife, purification, inner peace
• forms: incense, oils
• divinities: Isis, Ra at Midday
• traditions: Egyptian, Jewish, Christian
• symbolizes sustenance, abundance, fertility, good luck
• forms: grain, straw figures and symbols, cookies, cakes, breads
• divinities: Earth Goddesses; Saturn & Ops; Goat Spirit; Fairy Folk
• traditions: Roman, Celtic, Scots, Teutonic, Sweedish, Christian