Over the next five days I plan to publish a number of articles that highlight the Christian celebration of the birth of the Christ child. The symbolism comes from the deep unconscious. But symbolic imagery is not limited to the unconscious and its visits through ones dreams. It is spread all through the waking world that has given rise to the significance of the images in the dream world.
Though there are many traditions celebrated around the time of Christmas throughout the Christian world I have narrowed them to 10 that we in North America are the most familiar with.
Holly was a Druid symbol for the promise of new life to come at winters end and of strength and protection, goodwill and everlasting life. Druids brought holly boughs into their homes to shelter elves and faeries that joined mortals during Yuletide.
It was also the sacred plant of the Roman god Saturn, the father of Jupiter. During the festival of Saturnalia celebrated since the 2nd century BCE. Between December 17th through the 23rd , the Romans used to give each other sprigs of Holly. Christians have since co-opted it as a reminder that Jesus wore a crown of thorns at his crucifixion, though this would make more sense during the time of Easter, than Christmas.
A star atop the tree: This may have originated as a protection symbol against fire and lightning. Druids may have used the six-pointed star as a protection symbol against evil spirits. Early Alchemists used it as a symbol for a chemical interaction before it became a symbol Judaism. The Star of Bethlehem allegedly guided the three wise men and announced the birth of Jesus.
Christmas tree: When choosing the date of Jesus the early church chose a time already celebrated by much of what was known as the modern world and is now derisively called the pagan world. The people of the time celebrated the tree of life, the symbol for life in the known universe. During the 17th century the Germans brought the trees indoors and decorated them with candles. The Germans also saw the evergreen tree as the “Paradise Tree” from which the apple featured in the Adam and Eve story was picked.
The Poinsettia: In Mexico there is the legend of the Poinsettia that tells of a poor girl, Maria and her little brother Pablo, who were disappointed they had no money to buy a present for baby Jesus at the annual Mexican Christmas festival. On Christmas eve Maria and Pablo stopped to pick some weeds, for baby Jesus. As they placed the weeds around the Manger, the green leaves miraculously turned into bright red petals. Soon the Manger was surrounded by beautiful star-shaped flowers.
The ringing of bells is to ward off evil. Ancient priests used to wear them on their robes. Bells also used to ring in the medieval towers of churches to warn (threaten?) the devil of Jesus’ coming.
Santa Claus: Originally St. Nicholas born in 4th century Turkey and known for his generosity and love of children and later became known as the patron saint of both children and sailors. By the 16th century Dutch children would place their wooden shoes by the hearth in hopes that they would be filled with treats by their Sinter Klass. In Great Britain the image of Father Christmas may have been first depicted by Dickens’ portrayal of the Ghost of Christmas present in his novel, “The Christmas Carol.” By 1822 Clement C. Moore wrote a poem , “A visit from St Nicholas, which was later published as “The night before Christmas.” This poem wasn’t originally for publication, but was a gift for his children. Some of the ideas for this poem came from the old Dutch colony in the Americas. Originally the “jolly old elf’ was dressed in dark clothing, the colorful Santa Claus that we see today was popularized by Haddon Sunblom drawing for the Coca Cola company advertising in the 1930’s.
Yule log burning: The Yule celebration was originally a winter festival for the Wild Hunt where a spectral group of huntsman racing across the frozen winter landscape.
Originally the log was an entire tree. Known in Germany as the Christ Log and in England originally as the Yule Clog. The burning of the log may be a holdover from the ancient fire-festival of the winter solstice when it was considered a magical protective amulet. In Serbian tradition the log burns all night with the belief that its warmth and light symbolize the coming of Christ as well as providing a warm welcome to the Virgin Mary and the family’s ancestors who may be guests at the table
Mistletoe: In old Saxon (part of modern day Germany) mistletoe was known as Mist Tang, or Dung on a twig.
“The mistletoe is still hung up in farm-houses and kitchens at Christmas, and the young men have the privilege of kissing the girls under it, plucking each time a berry from the bush. When the berries are all plucked the privilege ceases.”
Washington Irving (1820)
Ancient Celts thought that it was a remedy for barrenness in cattle.
Candles: Ancient Romans thought that they warded off evil spirits and may have been used to convince the sun to shine again. Candles in the window were to announce that the house would welcome passerby to shelter and warmth. The Christians use them during Advent to remind of the coming of “the light of the world,” Jesus. Of the five candles affixed to a wreath four represent each week of advent with the fifth in the center representing the Christ Candle that is lit on Christmas Eve.
Ornaments on the tree: Once only wafers signifying the body of Christ and then later uniquely shaped cookies were hung on the tree in Germany. Sugar ornaments were later hung along with apples, nuts, dates and paper flowers as part of the Yule celebration.