Every year come December, people all over the world ‘deck the halls with boughs of holly’, pine, fir and other greenery. But did you ever wonder where this tradition came from?
The use of holly, evergreens and trees to decorate our homes dates back thousands of years to when ancient cultures from all over the world would use green plants in their winter solstice celebrations.
The Druids, Celts, Romans and even the Egyptians used holly and other greens, long before the Christians adopted these practices and changed the symbolism to reflect Christian beliefs.
Holly(Ilex) has long been associated with winter holidays.
The ancient Celtic Druids considered holly to be a sacred plant and regarded it as a symbol of fertility and eternal life because it did not shed its leaves as the deciduous trees did. It was thought to have magical powers. While other plants wilted in winter weather, holly remained green and strong, its berries a brightly colored red even in the harshest of conditions.
In Druid lore, cutting down a holly tree would bring bad luck. In contrast, bringing holly into the home brought good luck, and placing it around the door, often as a wreath, prevented evil spirits from entering. They used evergreen, holly and mistletoe to decorate their temples and perform rituals during the winter solstice.
In many ancient cultures, the howling, icy winds and dark nights of winter were believed to be ghosts and demons and decorating with holly was thought to ward off these evil spirits.
In Norse mythology, holly was associated with Thor, god of thunder, and holly plants grown by or hung in the home were thought to prevent lightning strikes.
The ancient Romans associated holly with Saturn, the god of agriculture and harvest, and decked their halls with its boughs during the festival of Saturnalia. Homes and temples were filled with evergreen boughs to celebrate new growth and fruitfulness.
The ancient Egyptians worshipped the sun god, Ra. They believed that winter was brought on by the departure or sickness of Ra. At the winter solstice, in anticipation of Ra’s return, the Egyptians would fill their homes with green date palm rushes that symbolized Ra’s recovery and triumph over death
Wreaths & Trees
Christmas wreaths are connected with the pagan holiday of Yule, marking the winter solstice, which was celebrated by ancient Germanic and Scandinavian peoples. This 12-day festival, which was also called midwinter, was held to honor the returning of the sun and the seasonal cycle. The wreaths used during Yule were meant to symbolize nature and the promise of spring. They held candles that were lit in hopes of the return of the warmth and the sunlight.
The Vikings believed that cold and evil spirits would come out during the winter solstice. They put wreaths over their doors and brought whole evergreen trees into their homes in order to protect themselves against the evil. The burning of this large tree or log eventually became the yule log tradition we know today.
By the 16th century, German Christians were putting up evergreen trees in their homes as symbols of their Christian faith. Some say this was due to the legend of St. Boniface who came to convert the Vikings in the 8th century and turned their traditional pagan rituals using the evergreen into symbols of Christ’s triumph over death.
The Germans brought their Christmas tree tradition with them to the New World and community trees were seen in Pennsylvania settlements as early as 1747. The practice did not catch on quickly as many Americans thought the trees were silly. It took time for the decoration of evergreen trees to spread to the rest of America and then throughout the world.
Eventually, decorated trees became the Christmas tradition we know today as the holiday was popularized by Clement Clark Moore’s The Night Before Christmas, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, and Thomas Nast’s classic Santa Claus illustrations.
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