Here we are in the midst of the Holiday Season. Decorations have been put up in Macy’s since before Halloween. We visited the Christmas Department in Jenners (Scotland’s Herrods) in Edinburgh on October 11.
Magazines are brim full of new recipes to try for your Christmas feast. Stores have taken down the pre-Christmas sale signs in order to be ready for the after-Christmas sale signs.
The news recently announced a new phenomenon: Pre-Christmas returns. We, too, are getting into the spirit of the season--Anne has the house decorated inside, I’ve put up our small display of porch and patio lights, the Holiday tunes have been playing since we got back from Scotland in the middle of October (I do start playing my Holiday CDs early). In all this decorating and frenzied buying or ordering (even in a weak economy) many of the original meanings of the seasonal celebrations get overlooked or have been forgotten altogether. In this Holiday entry I plan to share some of the most ancient meanings, rituals, and traditions of our holiday celebrations.
Our most ancient celebrations center around the Winter Solstice, that time when because of the Earth’s tilt on its axis, our hemisphere receives the least direct light from the sun. [Even though the sun is actually closer to the Earth at this time of year. Go figure.]
(My photo of the 1979 solar eclipse in Oregon, published in Sky and Telescope Magazine.)
Solstice comes from the Latin sol stetit or literally “sun stands still” referring to the slow movement of the sun in the sky. This year the solstice moment occurs on December 22 at 5:30 a.m. GMT. That means that daylight in our hemisphere is the shortest and the sun has the lowest arc in the sky. For us the Winter Solstice means that the sun is directly overhead at noon on the Tropic of Cancer (Sao Paulo, Brazil, southern Madagascar, and Brisbane, Australia), but it is only half way to the zenith at noon here in Oregon.
One of the earliest recorded celebrations of the Winter Solstice, as reported in 4000 Years of Christmas, was by the Mesopotamians who held a twelve day festival to help God Murduk tame the monsters of chaos for one more year. The similarity to other Twelve Days of Christmas traditions should not be missed. Even older, but not confirmed, Neolithic tribes, the first farmers, ten-thousand years ago celebrated the solstice in order to overcome fear that the failing sunlight would not return. In Ireland, in about 4000 BCE, the acre across tomb called New Grange in the Boyne Valley was built.
The original Irish Gaelic name meant “cave of the sun.” For about a week before and a week after the Winter Solstice the light from the rising sun passes through a narrow slot in the tomb entrance and illuminates special spiral carvings on the wall eighty feet deep in the cairn.
On Mainland (the main island), Orkney, off the north coast of Scotland, is a similar chambered cairn called Maeshowe. It too is aligned so that the rising solstice sun shines into the tomb and lights up the main chamber.
During this time of year many cities will have concerts or performances dedicated to the Return of the Light. The Christmas Revels is a play performed each year in twelve cities which tells the Return of the Light story as seen in as diverse cultures as British, Celtic, Scandinavian, French, and American (more information at www.revels.org).
Several of our traditions of Christmas are rooted in very ancient rituals. For instance, the tradition of the Christmas feast can be traced back to the ancient Chinese celebration Dong Zhi, the Arrival of Winter. The Chinese celebrated the solstice with a day of feasting on the finest pork, chicken, beef, and mutton [Can mutton really be good?], but I don’t know if that came with egg rolls or not.
(It's not a Christmas Feast, but this seafood feast was one order of the regular seafood platter at a hotel pub in Gairloch, Scotland. No, I didn't eat the whole thing, but all the diners applauded when it was brought to my table.)
In Russia one Winter Solstice ritual involved a young girl, two candles, and two mirrors. The girl was placed in a dark room with only the two candles for light. She was to seek the seventh reflection in the mirrors so that she could then see what the coming year would hold for the village. Medieval Britain held a winter festival called “Apple Wassailing.” It started with a blessing of the apple trees with song, dance, and decorations, and ended with the drinking of wassail, a combination of hot wine, spices and fruit shared out of a large bowl.
Also in Medieval Britain was the Wiccan (witch) ritual of “Sunreturn,” which begins at Yule (the longest day) and ends when the sun return is noticeable on about the twelfth day.
The traditions we will celebrate this Christmas often can be traced back to ancient beginnings. The Yule Log, such as we view on Oregon PBS broadcast from Timberline Lodge on Christmas Eve, is actually of Scandinavian origin. From the Norse jol, Winter Solstice Festival, the log was supposed to burn from sundown to sunup on the longest night. Today we use candles for the same purpose.
Decorating with evergreens, especially holly, goes back to ancient beliefs that view evergreens as symbols of rebirth and life. Holly was particularly treasured around doors, windows, and hearths because the prickliness was thought to ward off or snag evil spirits before they could enter the house.
The ultimate evergreen ritual is the Christmas tree which adorns most homes and almost all our commercial establishments. The oldest reference if from the Wiccan Sunreturn where they would decorated evergreen trees with edible goodies (apples, nuts, grain, roots, berries) for the wild creatures of the forest. The earliest mention of indoor trees comes from the parlors of Strausbourgh, Germany in 1605. German tradition from the 17th century used candles on the trees glued with wax or pinned at the ends of branches. Later they used candle holders with clips (introduced in 1890) and lanterns. Britain’s first tree was brought to Balmoral Castle in 1840 by Prince Albert for Queen Victoria.
(Balmoral Castle, Scotland.)
The traditional Christmas tree came to the United States through German immigrants in the 1830s and 40s--in fact, the first tree in Virginia was set up in 1842. The first advertisements for a Christmas tree and decorations appeared in 1843. By 1880 the New York Tribune estimated there were 200,000 Christmas trees in New York City alone. Twenty years later one-in-five families in the US had a tree. Early decorated trees lighted with candles were responsible for many fires and much holiday tragedy. The first string of electric Christmas lights made up of 80 hand-blown globes was made in 1882 for an Edison Co. VP. In 1895 President Grover Cleveland had electric lights on the White House tree. The modern era was upon us.
It’s little recognized that Christmas trees were responsible for one of America’s great fortunes. F.W. Woolworth bought some glass ornaments from an importer in 1889 and they sold out in two days. In 1890 he went to Germany and ordered 1500 gross of glass ornaments, almost corning the market.
An old English tradition of giving small gifts or “gimcracks” (defined by The Modern American Christmas as “flimsy geegaws, tawdry and gaudy ephemeral, soon relegated to the limbo of the attic or ash heap; and characterized as low priced, poor quality, and of no useful purpose like the 12th set of cufflinks from Aunt Mary”) was changed in 1840 when a company started producing cards which could be exchanged instead of gimcracks.
The idea caught on and one study in 1911 showed that more cards were sent than the small gifts. After an aggressive campaign by the Greeting Card Association in America from 1917 to 1927 sales of Christmas cards increased five fold--from $10 million to $55 million. Sales of Christmas cards actually increased during the Depression years.
The newest wrinkle in Christmas cards has been the proliferation over the past twenty years of the Holiday Letter (which people either love or hate) and now the Holiday email (which the greeting card companies definitely hate). In self-defense I make no mention of the Holiday Blog Entry--Opps, I mentioned it.
This year as you sing of Santa Coming to Town Jingling Bells all the way in a Sleigh Ride strung with Silver Bells in a Winter Wonderland, remember the ancient beginnings of our Holiday Season celebrations, the rituals that came before ours, and the traditions we continue to celebrate. On Thursday, December 22, the Winter Solstice, burn your Yule Log or light your candles to help bring back the Light.
Happy Holidays and Best Wishes for a Great New Year from Bob and Anne Jones