Holidays of light

Chances are you’re planning a major holiday celebration of some kind between now and Jan. 1. And it’s almost a given that the celebration will feature the symbols of traditional winter festivals, including greenery, gift giving, feasting and lights.

Where did these symbols and ideas come from?

Light and the solstices

Ancient peoples lived their lives according to the changing seasons. In the spring, they planted crops, harvesting them through the summer and fall. When winter came, the people took to their dwellings, where they passed the cold dark months living off stored food, hunting for scarce meat and hoping that they would have enough food and firewood to last until spring.

In those times, winter celebrations centered on the coming of the winter solstice. Solstice is a compilation of the Latin sol and sistere, literally, "sun stands still." At the winter solstice the sun is above the horizon for fewer than 12 hours each day and doesn’t climb very high, making it appear to stand still in the sky.

The winter solstice – also called midwinter – occurs on Dec. 21 and marks the meteorological beginning of winter: the shortest day and longest night of the year. With the passing of the winter solstice, the days begin to lengthen.

It’s not surprising that ancient people rejoiced at midwinter, for they knew that warmth, light and abundant food would soon come again.

Light is the most important symbol of the winter holidays, and relates back to the ancient peoples’ joy at the lengthening days and the return of light and life. Candles, firelight and even strands of holiday lights help symbolize the importance of light at this time of year.

Today, most religious traditions hold some sort of celebration around the time of the winter solstice, and most of them feature light, e.g., the Christian holiday of Christmas, the Wiccan Yule and the Jewish celebration of Hanukkah.

The Yule log and holiday plants

Evergreen trees are another important seasonal symbol. Because evergreens stay green throughout the winter, they have long appeared in winter celebrations as representations of the still-living world. The "Christmas tree" and the wreaths and garlands that people hang during December all reflect this meaning.

Wreaths of evergreen, cones, seeds and berries also reference the cyclical revolution of the seasons, the wheel of the year. In Norse, "Yule" is the word for wheel.

The Yule log is an ancient symbol of waxing solar year. Traditionally made of oak, the Yule log is lit on solstice eve and burned until morning for the best of luck. Wishes and toasts may be made over the log.

Mistletoe, a poisonous plant that grows parasitically in oak trees, was sacred to the Druids. They used golden sickles to cut mistletoe, ideally on the sixth night of the full moon before either solstice, while maidens gathered beneath the trees with bolts of white linen to catch the falling plant.

Believed to be a magical aphrodisiac, bunches of mistletoe are hung over doorways today to bring luck and fertility. The tradition endures today with mistletoe exacting a kiss from anyone who lingers underneath it.

Honoring mother and child

The winter solstice stands opposite to the summer solstice on the seasonal wheel of the year. In earth-based traditions the sun is considered to represent the male divinity, and the solstice has been widely celebrated as the "return of the sun god," reborn of a mother figure or goddess.

Many past and present cultures honor a "mother and child" at this time of year, including Tonantzin, the Native Mexican corn mother, Holda, a Teutonic earth goddess of good fortune, Bona Dea, the Roman women’s goddess of abundance and prophecy, Ops, the Roman goddess of plenty, Au Set/Isis, a multicultural Egyptian goddess whose worship continued in Christian times under the name Mary, and Lucina/St. Lucy, the Roman/Swedish goddess/saint of light. The Christian nativity scene likewise honors the Madonna and child.

Santa Claus and other Christmas traditions

Winter festivals are closely linked to the Roman festival of Saturnalia, which includes New Years Eve and Day, and the image of Old Father Time (Saturn) and his scythe. Father Christmas, Santa Claus and Father Time are images of Old Man Winter and the sun god.

Santa also embodies characteristics of Saturn, the Roman agricultural god, Cronos, a Greek god also known as Father Time, the Holly King, a Celtic god of the dying year, Father Ice/Grandfather Frost, the Russian winter god, Thor, the Norse sky god who rides the sky in a chariot drawn by goats, Odin/Wotan, the Scandinavian/Teutonic All-Father who rides the sky on an eight-legged horse, and the Tomte, a Norse Land Spirit known for giving gifts to children around the solstice time.

Midwinter has always been a time of joyful feasting. When faced with the shortest day and longest night of the year, early people feared that sunlight would not return to nourish the land and banish the cold. It was this apprehension that led to phrases like, "Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow may never come."

Feasting celebrated the return of light and bounty and provided a festival to allay the boredom and depression of the long winter. Gift giving became another way to share wealth and bounty with one’s companions.

Caroling arose when young children honored the winter solstice with song, going throughout their villages and singing door to door. The villagers rewarded them with tokens, sweets and small gifts.

Bells are often used to decorate homes and trees. When a bell rings, legend says that a spirit is present. As a child in the film "It’s a Wonderful Life" says, "every time a bell rings an angel gets his wings."

This holiday season, whether you kindle a Yule log, decorate a Christmas tree or sit down to a holiday feast, knowing that you’re part of a rich history of tradition might make the experience even richer.