This week is the final countdown to the nation’s most celebrated (and most decorated) holiday of the year. By this time, nearly all adornments have been completed, adding cheer and festive enhancements to homes throughout Wisconsin.
Last week’s blog examined the history behind the tradition of evergreens at Christmas time, which started thousands of years ago as a way to “add life” to the home during the long dark winters. It is the perfect time for custom home owners to add their own form of life and adornment to their cherished home.
As a continuation of this theme, there are many other traditional decorations and activities that have been celebrated for years, some modernized but many similar to customs hundreds of years old. With regard to evergreens, the topic of Christian reinterpretation kept emerging as many pagan traditions were given Christian meanings; recasting religious or cultural activities and traditions of the pagan peoples into a Christianized form was one strategy for easing conversions to Christianity.
On that note, Yule, which is now synonymous with Christmas, has its roots in pagan celebrations, the name of old Winter Solstice festivals in Scandinavia and northern Europe prior to medieval times. It has been connected with the wild hunt and the god Odin. Christian reformulation resulted in the word “Christmastide”, derived from “Yuletide”. The events of Yule were centered on the midwinter, the day marking the shortest period of daylight and longest nights, with feasting, drinking and sacrifices lasting many days.
The Yule log was an important prop in these celebrations, a carefully chosen tree that was brought into the home with great ceremony. The stump would be lit in the fireplace from the prior year’s Yule log, and the rest of the tree would be left in the room, carefully monitoring a slow burn of the tree through the days of the festival. When Yuletide was Christianized, the Yule log would be slowly fed into the fire over the 12 days of Christmas. Today, more modern interpretations of the Yule log are found in popular desserts: a buche du Noel or chocolate Yule Log is a celebrated dessert at Christmas, typically a chocolate sponge roll layered with cream, rolled up and decorated with chocolate to resemble a log.
The custom of the Yule log spread all over Europe and the UK , with different kinds of woods selected in different regions. The French traditionally chose cherry wood and sprinkled it with wine to enhance the burning scents. Ashes for burnt Yule logs were thought to be very good for spring planting and should be preserved. Throwing ashes away on Christmas day was considered bad luck. From these ancient Yule celebrations in the Middle Ages, the Yule boar, sacrificed as part of the celebrations has made its way into Christian celebrations as the traditional Christmas Ham served.
The commonly associated flower with Christmastime is the Poinsettia, with varietals in red, whites and pinks and cross-breeding to bring multiple decorative options within that basic color scheme. These beautiful and festive plants adorn entrances, tables, mantles and churches as adopted symbols of Christmastide. Native plants to Central America and southern Mexico, which flower during the winter, these plants had many uses, including dyes for clothing and medicinal properties. They were first brought back to the United States in the mid 1800s by an ambassador to Mexico. Legend has it that a poor Mexican girl had no gift to bring to the altar of Jesus on Christmas eve, so she gathered weeds by the road to present at the nativity scene. All present had witnessed the sudden bursting of these weeds into bright red flowers, then known as “Flowers of the Holy Night”. Christians often consider the shape of the flower leaves to be a symbol of the star of Bethlehem, the red color symbolizing the blood of Christ’s body, and the white flowers symbolizing purity.
Church bells have long had an important association with both the Anglican and Catholic Church, ringing throughout the year for various celebrations, as well as being used to communicate important messages. As the church day begins at sunset, the Christmas Eve service that begins traditionally after sunset is the first service of Christmas Day, and bells are traditionally rung to signal the start of this service. As with the other traditions, bells were also a part of pagan celebrations, historically rung to ward away evil spirits. The bell ringing adopted by Christians evolved into making noise to celebrate joyous occasions rather than warding away evil spirits, evidenced in the most cheerful details of modern day Christmas celebrations, such as the bells on Santa’s sleigh.
During Victorian times in England, carolers would often ring hand bells in lieu of singing, which leads to a last enduring tradition of singing Christmas carols. The word carol means a song or dance of praise, and once again can be traced back to pagan celebrations during the winter solstice. The shortest day of the year typically falls around December 22nd, and these carols would be sung as people danced around stone circles during celebrations. Carols were written year-round, but with Christian reinterpretation, the tradition of singing carols at Christmastime has only survived.
As early as the 2nd century, when early Christians took over these pagan winter solstice celebrations, they gave Christmas celebrants alternate religious carols to sing in place of the pagan ones. By the middle ages, interest in celebrating Christmas had waned, only to be revived in the 13th century by St. Francis of Assisi and nativity plays that contained “canticles” or religious songs, written in a language the audience could understand and join in. Carols were popularly sung at home, in churches and in public by travelling minstrels, until a brief reprieve during the Puritan’s rule in England in the 17th century, when all Christmas celebrations were frowned upon. However, carols were handed down quietly, and in Victorian times, popularity of carols and singing carols in the street at Christmastime once again soared, and many of the new carols written during this time are still popular today.
All of us at Colby Construction wish you a peaceful holiday and ample time to celebrate traditions new and old with loved ones.