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Ancient Origins of Popular Holiday Traditions

by
Dec 8th, 2023

Did you know that many of the Christmas traditions we observe today date back further than Christmas itself? 

Here are just a few of the traditions we observe today during the December holiday season that have their roots in ancient Yule festivities!

What is yule?

Yule, also known as Jul, jól or joulu in Scandinavia, is a pagan winter festival that was historically observed by the Germanic peoples. It’s celebrated around the winter solstice and marks the shortest day of the year and the beginning of the astronomical winter. 

Yule is traditionally celebrated from December 21st to December 23rd, although some celebrations may extend into early January depending on where the celebrations are held.

Having been around for centuries, Yule is a time for feasting, gift-giving and storytelling, as well as a time to honor the gods and goddesses of the Germanic pantheon like Odin, Thor and Frey, all of who play large roles in the success, prosperity, safety and health of the people throughout the year. Many of the traditions associated with Christmas, such as decorating a Christmas tree, hanging stockings and exchanging gifts have their origins in Yule, though they’ve changed slightly since their ancient beginnings.

5 Christmas traditions with Yule and pagan backgrounds

Cookies and milk

The tradition of leaving cookies and milk for Santa and his reindeer started way, way back in the day — back before Santa himself even existed!

The tradition of leaving treats for visiting gift-givers and their animal friends is rooted in Norse mythology. In Norse mythology, Odin, the chief god, rode an eight-legged horse named Sleipnir eight nights before the winter solstice. Children would leave dates and snacks out for Sleipnir in the hopes that Odin would stop by and leave gifts in return. 

These old Norse traditions evolved as Saint Nicholas and the Santa Claus characters emerged, resulting in a blend of traditions that evolved further as they traveled around the world. In the United States, the dates turned into cookies and milk; in Ireland, kids leave out a pint of Guinness; in France, Père Noël gets a glass of wine; in Australia, Santa gets a glass of sherry and some mince pies. 

Christmas tree

The origins of the Christmas tree can be traced back to ancient pagan practices and medieval Christian symbolism — just as many other holiday traditions are (Halloween, anyone?).

The use of evergreen trees for winter celebrations dates back to ancient cultures around the world. In many societies in Europe, evergreens were seen as symbols of life and renewal, representing hope and resilience during the dark and cold winter months. 

In ancient Rome, the Feast of Saturnalia (held in December) involved decorating homes with evergreen branches and exchanging gifts, as the Romans believed that evergreens possessed magical powers and could ward off evil spirits. Celtic cultures also revered evergreens, associating them with the god of the forest and nature; they believed that evergreens held the power to protect people and bring good luck during the winter solstice. Germanic tribes celebrated a midwinter festival called Yule, which involved bringing evergreens into homes to represent the hope and promise of spring. 

The concept of the "paradise tree" emerged in medieval Germany as a representation of the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden. Paradise trees were displayed in homes on December 24th, the feast day of Adam and Eve, and were often decorated with apples, representing the forbidden fruit of knowledge, candles and wafers, representing the Eucharist.

The modern Christmas tree tradition as we know it today took shape in the 19th century, particularly in Germany and England. Queen Victoria and her German husband, Prince Albert, popularized the tradition in England and it soon spread to other countries. 

The rest, as they say, is history!

Door wreaths

As with many traditions on this list, the origins of the front-door wreath tradition can be traced back to ancient cultures, with various symbolic meanings and associations evolving over time as beliefs and cultures interacted with each other. 

In ancient Greece and Rome, wreaths crafted from laurel or olive branches were commonly used as symbols of victory, honor and status and were often awarded to athletes, warriors and scholars. Wreaths were also hung on doors as decorations, representing prosperity and good fortune.

Later, early Christians adopted the use of wreaths during the winter solstice, hanging evergreen wreaths on doors as a sign of faith and renewal. Door wreaths continued to be associated with religious celebrations in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, particularly during Advent and Christmas. The tradition has stuck ever since!

Mistletoe

Mistletoe’s magical powers can be traced back to ancient Norse, Celtic and Roman cultures long before Christmas ever came around!

The Celts, who inhabited parts of Europe from the Iron Age to the Middle Ages, revered mistletoe as a sacred plant with magical and medicinal properties. They believed that mistletoe, which grows on trees without touching the ground, possessed the power of fertility, healing and protection. In Norse mythology, mistletoe played a significant role in the story of the god Baldur, the son of the goddess Frigg. Baldur was invulnerable to all harm, except for mistletoe. Further south, the Romans celebrated the winter festival of Saturnalia, during which they would exchange gifts and kiss under branches of mistletoe.

Some believe that because the Celts associated mistletoe with fertility and romance, they may have kissed under mistletoe as a way to promote fertility and strengthen relationships. And since it was also seen as a symbol of peace and reconciliation, enemies would sometimes lay down their weapons and kiss under mistletoe as a sign of truce.

Yule log

Burning fires was a large part of the Yule celebration, and the tradition carried over to Christmas festivities around the 17th century. A large log would be brought into the house and the largest end placed in the fireplace, then the long log would be slowly fed into the fire and burned each night over twelve nights before Christmas. How cool!

This holiday season, take a moment to consider the traditions that you celebrate and have fun exploring their origins! You may find out that they have much deeper, older meanings than you ever thought!

Happy holidays!

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Featured photo courtesy Pixabay/HelgaKa

Author of Article

Colleen Ford is a South African who now lives in Spokane, Washington. She loves to travel, camp (in warm weather) and bake.

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