The Darkness and Light: the origins of Christmas symbolism
Have you ever wondered why we celebrate Christmas with the symbols we do? The evergreens, the candles, the elves and Santas, the stockings and presents? Even the time of year we celebrate Christmas is symbolic, as it isn’t clear exactly when Jesus was born.
All of them have in common the meaning and early celebrations of the Winter Solstice, the day when the light of days ceases to wane and begin to wax again. This day has long represented everything that light and spring represent to us: knowledge, renewal, life, warmth, hope, and prosperity after a long, dark, difficult, cold winter in which survival has become difficult.
Before Christ was born, pagans celebrated the solstice in numerous cultures, in the form of Saturnalia in Rome, Samhain in Celtic Europe, and the Festivals of Osiris in Egypt, for example. So, when Christians in the 4th Century sought to define the date of Christmas celebrations, they most likely chose December 25 because of the date’s significance to other cultural celebrations of winter’s promised end. The date coincides with the birth date of the Roman God Sol (sun god) and the date of Osiris’ restoration to life, for example, both which represent the hope and renewal Jesus brings.
But, what of the rituals surrounding Christmas? Here, we explore some of the little-known origins of symbols we might have assumed have always been tied to Christmas. If you’d like to read more about such origins and symbols, you might want to read The Winter Solstice: The Sacred Traditions of Christmas, by John Matthews.
The Egyptians celebrated the god Attis by decorating a pine tree and then cutting it down, symbolizing Attis’ holy sacrifice beneath one. Attis is a god of vegetation, and his story of castration resembles the process of harvesting and reseeding. The Greeks celebrate a similar god, Dionysus (Bacchus in Roman mythology), which they revered during festivals, as well (see below), but the symbolism of cutting down a tree green with life in the middle of winter acknowledges life cycles during this time of year.
Evergreens represent that which is unaffected by death, or everlasting life. The Romans decorated their houses with evergreens for the celebration of the calendar new year in January. Such practice was banned in early Christian England but then later allowed and even adopted by Christians during Christmastime.
Christians have long believed that on the eve of Christ’s birth, trees and flowers bloomed inexplicably in the snow to hail His coming. Some species of plants do hit blooming peaks around the solstice, and we decorate our houses with them. We call the Brazilian succulent the Christmas cactus, for example, because it often blooms around Christmas time.
The Druids (the educated Celtic peoples of the Iron Age) held mistletoe sacred, believing it to have restorative powers, even though the plant is parasitic, feeding off its host plant. The plant as a medicine was also thought to make barren animals fertile, possibly contributing to the practice of kissing under the mistletoe.
Santa. The form and costumes of Santa (his name derived from the actual medieval bishop, St. Nicholas) has evolved from various figures involved in the rites of the Solstice.
The gift-giving properties of the Old Elf originate not just with the Three Wisemen, or Kings, but in other cultures, as well. In Roman beliefs, the goddess Strenia brought gifts at the solstice. The Shamans, early pagan priests and magicians, most notably from the Siberian region, climbed “up the world tree” and returned with gifts of prophecy, essentially replicating the image of Santa descending the chimney on Christmas Eve. The shamans carried with them a bag of tricks and wore bells. They adorned red, which symbolized the blood that links us all, and gave the gift of fire, the sacred light that gives us life. And, they relied on reindeer for food, transportation, shelter, and clothing. Thus, the modern image we have of an actual Christian saint wearing red robes, flying from a mysterious northern region with reindeer on a sleigh, carrying a bag of gifts, and descending our chimneys, most likely comes from an ancient image of the Siberian shaman who essentially did the same.
The medieval Green Knight also embodies the concepts of Santa, fighting to return spring and bringing a bounty. (This image is also reminiscent of Dickens' Ghost of Christmas Present, which is bedecked in a green robe, surrounded by a cornucopia and carrying holly.) The medieval story of Sir Gawain (a Christian knight of the Round Table) and the Green Knight (representing the pagan solstice rites) depicts a time when the old winter celebrations entwined with the newer Christian ones.
The original celebration of St. Nicholas was on December 6, the Feast of St. Nicholas, still celebrated by many, especially in Nordic countries. In the Middle Ages, a popular story of the saint depicts the circular nature of the season, with St. Nicholas restoring youth who had been cruelly dismembered by an innkeeper. This story is reminiscent of the Greek rites of Dionysus, the god of the vine, who was reborn after being torn apart. Both stories embody the notion of rebirth after a harsh and cruel death. The youth of St. Nicholas’s story and Dionysus embody the process of reaping and sowing (the violent process of harvesting, lying dead or fallow, and planting anew) during the turnover months from fall to spring.
Santa’s doppleganger is evident in many winter traditions. Jack Frost, or Old Man Winter, known as Ded Moroz “Grandfather Frost” in Russian, are all anthropomorphic versions of winter. While not sinister, per se, they are reminders that winter is as old as time, can be cruel and unfair, and judges us, like death. Krampus, the Germanic/Nordic version of the anti-Claus, on the other hand, is overtly dark and sinister. With horns and fangs, he resembles the devil more than he does a benevolent saint. He punishes wicked children by stuffing them in his sack and running off with them to the underworld. Sweet dreams, kiddos.
The Child. Many cultures, too, include a figure who in some way represents or resembles the baby Jesus. For that reason, we say that Jesus is an archetypal figure. Christians do not believe that such parallels undermine the truth of Jesus’ story. Rather, they strengthen it: Before Jesus arrived, cultures celebrated the idea of Jesus in preparation for Him, so that they might more easily recognize the Savior.
Whatever your culture or belief, these symbols are evidence of a common bond. People recognize inherently that life is about the cycles of loss and renewal, sacrifice and thanks, humility and glory, mistakes and penance. Such a shared experience brings us together, creating a human bond and signifying an innate potential for spirituality.