Of all the holidays on the calendar, Christmas reigns supreme. Americans are so excited to celebrate it that Thanksgiving has basically become a sub-holiday of Christmas, and commercials for the December holiday begin airing in October. Everything about Christmas is a celebration of life, family, and friends, and this is a big reason why we love it so much. Many of the classic Christmas traditions we celebrate are essential to this festive feeling.

If you stop to think about these festive celebrations, the odder some of them seem. Why do we chop down a tree and bring it in the house? Why do we kiss each other under a poisonous plant? While many of us are familiar with the Christmas story, some of the stories behind some of the most central symbols of Christmas are old — older than Christianity, even!

How We Decorate the House

Many of the ways we decorate for the holiday season have deep roots in the ancient origins of Christmas. We’re not talking just about the Biblical history of the holiday, either. No, much like Halloween, Christmas took many of the pagan themes and celebrations and molded them to fit the religion sweeping Europe. In fact, one of Christmas’s central icons comes from this exact story.

O, Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree. O, Why Are You So Pagan-y?

If there is one image that symbolizes Christmas instantly, it’s the Christmas tree. That evergreen fir or pine covered in ornaments and lights is pretty, but what does it have to do with the birth of Jesus Christ? One story is that on Christmas Eve, Saint Boniface was wandering around Germany and came upon some pagans preparing to sacrifice a child beneath a large oak tree devoted to the god Thor. Boniface stop the ceremony and converted them. The tree was destroyed, and a fir tree grew in its place. This was consecrated as a holy tree, and it started a tradition in Germany of bringing fir trees into the home to celebrate the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.

Evergreens symbolized the triumph of life over death during winter for some of the largest ancient civilizations.

Evergreen decorations were common around Europe well before the founding of Christianity. Some of the largest ancient civilizations — like the Romans, Celts, Vikings, and Egyptians — used evergreens as symbols for the triumph of life over death during winter. This, of course, tied very well into the central story of Christianity — Jesus Christ’s resurrection on the cross — and was readily and lovingly co-opted into the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ.

The modern roots of the Christmas tree in America can be traced back to Pennsylvania Dutch settlers from Germany, who brought the tradition of decorated trees from their homeland. It didn’t really catch on, though, until the marriage of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, a native German. When images of the royal family standing beside a Christmas tree were printed and shared, the tradition gained widespread popularity.

Why Do We Kiss Under Mistletoe?

Another common decoration around Christmas time is mistletoe, under which you kiss your beloved. This seems like a strange tradition, but the story behind it becoming connected with Christmas is even weirder. The Ancient Greeks, Romans, and Celts all used mistletoe for health reasons, and later, it would become a symbol of virility and love. Saturnalia, the Roman holiday most associated with Christmas, was also decorated with mistletoe for this same reason.

In Nordic folklore, mistletoe was a symbol of love because of the death of the God of the Sun, Balder.

The most famous story connected with a tradition of kissing beneath mistletoe is from Nordic folklore. Balder was the beloved God of the Sun and dreamed he was about to die. His mother, Frigg the Goddess of Love, made every plant and animal promise not to harm her son. Loki, the trickster god, learned that Frigg had forgotten mistletoe, so he made a mistletoe spear or arrow (depending on the story). He then tricked the blind god Hod into killing Balder with it. Some legends say Frigg’s tear became the berries on mistletoe, while others say she later resurrected Balder with the plant (connecting him to Jesus’s resurrection story). Either way, Frigg declared mistletoe could never be used as a weapon again and that she’d kiss anyone who passed under it. It became a symbol of love and this tradition continued into medieval Europe and today.

Christmas in the Community

Christmas isn’t only celebrated in the home, though. No, come Christmastime, many will take to the streets to sing and sup with friends and family, just like people have for hundreds of years.

Here We Come A-Wassailing, but Why?

Wassailing is perhaps the oldest form of Christmas celebrations, predating Christianity in Britain and going back to the Anglo-Saxons. The term derives from the Anglo-Saxon waes hael or the Old Norse ves heill, which means “be well” or “good health.” Essentially, it was a cheer and often referred to a specific drink made of ale, cream, or apple cider.

Traditionally, there were three ways to celebrate wassailing. In the country, apple farmers would pour the drink on their trees while shouting to scare away evil spirits. In other areas, peasants would gather at their manor house and wish the home’s masters good health over a steaming bowl of wassail. Finally, on the twelfth night of Christmas, wassailers went from home to home, either offering the drink and well wishes or coming in for a drink.

Today, wassailing has been toned down and evolved into the modern tradition of caroling.

Today, wassailing is less common. That final wassailing may sound familiar, though. In modern times, wassailing is more commonly replaced by caroling. Though there’s a greater focus on singing and family fun, you can sometimes see the raucous and boozy, revelry roots from wassailing.

The Reason We Rock Around the Christmas Tree

Christmas and the holiday season in general have always been a festive time. With wassailing and decorations, how could you not be in a good mood? It’s the end of the year, so we can gather together, have a little too much eggnog, and give each other gifts. Today, when you can escape inside a heated house, this makes sense. But, rewind a few hundred years and the winter festive period looked a little more desolate. One only has to look at how Samhain was celebrated to remember that winter was a time of death. So, why are we so happy?

Christmas is largely a combination of two major pagan holidays — Saturnalia and the Yule Feast.

Well, that’s because Christmas celebrations, like Halloween, are largely a combination of two major pagan holidays. These were the Roman holiday of Saturnalia and the Nordic festival of the Yule Feast. Saturnalia was a weeklong festival celebrated at the end of December with parties and drinking, including a festival of Bacchus that was truly bacchanalian. As for Yule, it was a 12-day midwinter festival celebrated primarily by the Norse and Vikings, though the Celts had a very similar festival too. Yule was celebrated with feasts, mistletoe, and the god Odin disguised as a white-bearded wanderer. Sound familiar?

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While an amalgamation of the Celtic and Norse midwinter festivals are celebrated today by modern pagans and Wiccans, many of these traditions and beliefs were folded into the Christian canon in the early days. Much like the Christmas tree of Saint Boniface, Christmas used the fertile soil of old traditions to grow the holiday that is celebrated and loved around the world and across religions. From everyone at the Shop & Enroll blog, Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

Further Reading

The Shop & Enroll Blog — Why Do We Celebrate That? Halloween Traditions