Susan here, not the least bit ready for Christmas 2017, though it’s December 1st already and it’s time to be thinking about holiday matters (but the last couple of months vanished quickly, and December is taking my family by surprise this year). This weekend I hope we can catch up to the date and the spirit of things by bringing out the boxes of Christmas ornaments and getting the tree and wreaths up, and that will jumpstart my Christmas mood. I so love going through the ornaments, many of which carry wonderful memories, and when it’s all done and up, I adore the bright array of lights, decorations, beads and ribbons. There are few things lovelier or more special than a glowing Christmas tree in the quiet dark of night or before dawn. There's hope and peace in it that fills the home and the heart.
How long have we been hanging glittery bits and gewgaws on our Christmas trees? A glance into the history of Christmas ornaments and decorations points to the 16th century origin of the Christmas tree in Germany as a triangular symbol of the Holy Trinity, a tradition that expanded as decorations were included, such as roses, candles, cakes toys and other bright things. By the late 19th century, the Victorian Christmas tree was a marvelous thing to behold, with strings of cranberries and nuts and handmade ornaments, as well as candles all a-glow (though I cannot imagine having a relaxing Christmas holiday with flaming candles sitting on evergreen branches in the house!).
The custom of incorporating lights, evergreens and decorations at Yuletide goes back much further than Renaissance Europe, way back to Anglo-Saxon England, Celtic Scotland, back beyond Christian custom to the winter feast days of pagan worship among Celts, Druids and Vikings. The Yule log (and the name) came to Britain from Norse tradition, and the Saxons had a similar equivalent. The old gods and goddesses of pagan religions were believed to exist in the flames and sparks, and so these were carefully tended and coals were preserved for the year.
Today Yule logs may simply be cozy flames in the fireplace (or a rolled chocolate cake with creamy icing) – back then people stoked an enormous Yule log’s fire for twelve days straight to keep the bogles and bad spirits of winter away. In medieval Scotland, very early on, evergreens were considered sacred, a lasting legacy of the Druids who were all but wiped out by Roman persecution. Generally evergreen trunks were not cut, but over the days of Yule, a great log would be found and dragged in to fill the hearth and keep a protective fire burning within the household for twelve days—this a Christian custom based on the date of the Epiphany, generally celebrated on January 5th or 6th, depending on whether the first day of Yuletide, or Christmastide, is counted as December 25th or 26th (which can vary by region).
In medieval Scotland, where traditions of Celts, Druids, Vikings, and Christianity combined, great halls would be decorated with swags of juniper to cleanse and purify the household, rowan branches for luck and protection, holly for health, and mistletoe for fertility and more good luck for the coming year. There's an old tradition in Scotland of tying ribbons and bits of string year-round to a tree beside a healing well to represent prayers and wishes; I wonder if some of that early tradition was transferred later to the eventual Christmas tree. As for lights — pine sap torches would brighten the hall and the best beeswax candles, with their golden honey glow, would be set in the windows to welcome travelers in from the cold. With bad spirits warded off and good spirits invited in, the old year would end and the new one begin under the best graces and auspices.
Many of these old traditions are very much part of our modern Christmas decorations – greenery, holly, mistletoe, berries (Australians love cherries at Christmas, where it’s summertime); we keep lights and candles in the windows, and many of us leave our decorations up until Twelfth Day. And we hang wreaths of evergreen, the circular wreath going far back in history to the laurel wreaths of the Greeks and Romans, representing strength and victory, and the evergreen wreaths woven in medieval and later centuries as a circular symbol of the infinite nature of God.
This year, the tree in our living room will be decorated with white lights, angels, snowflakes, and tartan ribbons. We’ll change the tree theme from year to year – sometimes it’s all toys and whimsy and red bows, sometimes it’s pearl strands and Victorian pretties – but I love my angel tree best, as I’ve collected angel ornaments for years. Glass, silver, china, brass, handmade, those angels, like so many other holiday ornaments, are like good luck tokens at Christmas, little magical charms that grace the home and the family with a sense of protection and blessing, lifting up our spirits as the old year ends and the new year comes in, bringing surprises and, we hope, even more blessings.
What are your favorite ornaments and decorating traditions? Do you leave the tree and the whole lovely Christmasy chaos up through January 6th — or do you clear it all out to start your new year with a clean slate?
Hope your holidays are joyful and 2018 is filled with good fortune!