Christmas time brings with it so many familiar customs and traditions, many of which were handed down within our families. Wreaths, Christmas trees, caroling, yuletide logs, mistletoe, baking cookies, stockings and so many more traditional decorations and activities associated with Christmas are still commonly enjoyed today. How they became popular or where these traditions originated from is less familiar to the younger generation today. Equally curious is many other Christmas and winter holiday traditions still common in many other countries and cultures which are generally not locally represented among homes in the Lake Country area.
Many luxury home owners invest quite a bit of time and money “decking the halls” during the winter season. The traditional colors of green, red and gold often prevail in decorating themes, in the form of greenery (garland, trees, wreaths), bows, bells, poinsettias and other accents. The use of various types of greenery, trees, holly and ivy has originated mostly in northern and western European as decorations to brighten homes and buildings during long dark winters. With the spread of Christianity and celebration of Christmas, many cultures adapted specific customs associated with various types of greenery along with assigning a particular meaning to them.
Dating back to the middle ages, paradise plays were often performed on Christmas even throughout many parts of Europe. These plays communicated biblical stories to celebrants unable to read, and the tree in the Garden of Eden (Paradise tree), was often represented by a pine tree with red apples tied to it. Pagans and Christians alike have used evergreen fir trees and its branches for thousands of years to decorate their homes during the winter solstice as a reminder of the spring to come, yet the Christians adapted the tree as a symbol of God and everlasting life. There are varying accounts of when and where the tradition began of decorating a tree in the home at Christmas time, generally narrowed down to Latvia, Estonia and Germany in the 16th century. It became popular in “modern times” during Queen Victoria’s reign in England in the mid 1800’s, when her German husband (Prince Albert) had a tree erected in Windsor castle, and an illustration was published and widely disseminated throughout Britain and the U.S.
Holly, Ivy and Mistletoe:
As with Christmas trees, other forms of greenery were adapted from pagan traditions by the Christians, made acceptable by giving these beliefs a Christianized form or symbolism. Essentially, Christian reinterpretation so common during the middle ages is the process of reformatting traditional religious and cultural activities of “pagan” people into Christian traditions; it was sanctioned by religious leaders, believing conversion to Christianity would be easier for people if they were allowed to hold onto these traditions. Many newly converted advocated keeping the custom of greenery, giving it a Christian meaning, but ban its use as decoration for the home. Holly has prickly leaves said to represent Jesus’ crown of thorns, the red berries his drops of blood, and in Scandinavia is known as Christ thorn. Germans and citizens in the UK were the main cultures to incorporate these prior pagan customs into their Christmas celebrations.
Typically made of laurel leaves, wreaths have been worn on the head for thousands of years to symbolize success and victory. In roman times, they were also hung from doors to symbolize victory, and, with Christian reinterpretation, wreaths came to symbolize the victory of God over evil. The actual word “wreath” is derived from the English word “writhen”, meaning to “twist”. Christians adopted this traditional mid-winter circular-shaped decoration of evergreens as a Christmas wreath, a symbol of Christ, the evergreens representing everlasting life and the circular shape representing God, no beginning and no end.
An understanding of the origins of beloved evergreen decorations and the symbolism attached somehow adds dimension to adorning the home at Christmastime. With so many modern Christmas traditions still commonly celebrated, we thought we’d explore the origins of some beloved and familiar activities next week.