Where do our Christmas traditions come from? Yule be surprised!
I grew up on a dairy farm, the youngest of six kids. Even though I am well into my 40s, my mother still refers to me as “the caboose.” (And I still roll my eyes.) My birth order position insulated me from some of the harsher chores, something my older siblings point out from time to time. So while I can claim the title of “farm kid,” I have to admit that I never milked cows before I had to get on the bus for school. I occasionally baled hay, popping the clutch on hillsides with regularity and sending my brother flying off the back of the wagon into the field. (I was not a particularly skilled tractor driver.)
As a teen, living on the farm was a burden. We were too far from town, I never knew what was going on with my friends, and I definitely didn’t want to do the chores I was assigned. I vowed to move away and never live in this boring place again! I went to college and lived in or near bigger cities for a decade. I even spent one glorious semester living in London.
But then, my husband and I decided that we ought to raise our kids near at least one set of their grandparents. We did the unthinkable and moved back home!! My parents were gracious enough to sell us some of the farm acreage for our new house. So now I live in a place where I can see my brother’s house across the farm fields (formerly my grandparents’ farm), and if it weren’t for a smallish hill and stand of trees, I could see my parents’ home, too. I am never more grateful for this closeness than I am at this time of year. The snow will soon blanket these fields. The lake where I made my first attempts at ice skating has a skim of ice. And the enormous pine trees near my parents’ home remind me of the many times we were able to harvest our own Christmas trees from these rows before they grew too big.
This is home and family—for me that’s what Christmas is all about. We’re surely not unique in that. Our traditions are likely very similar to those in your family. We cut down the tree together, decorate the house—inside and out, bake more cookies than are good for us, and wrap gifts like maniacs, often at the last minute!
But I can’t neglect the religiousness of the holiday. Besides being a farm kid, I was also raised Catholic and our traditions included many church activities—pageants, advent wreaths, nativity scenes, and midnight mass.
With my heritage as a Midwestern Christian firmly established, I may seem like a rather unlikely author of books set in a Celtic pagan society. I began to create this world after I read historical texts that talked in detail about the conversion of people from their pagan traditions to Christianity. I found it fascinating that church leaders openly adopted some pagan traditions and allowed new converts to bring many pagan traditions with them to Christianity. The Christmas season is full of these traditions.
In fact, December 25 was not the date when biblical scholars say Christ was born. This date was chosen in the fourth century because it coincided with pagan solstice festivals and in particular with the Roman festival of Saturnalia. The winter solstice celebration included the decorating of the home with pine boughs or other greenery depending on the climate. For instance, in Egypt palm trees were decorated as part of this festival.
As Christianity moved northward and spread throughout Germanic, Nordic, and Celtic societies, the Christmas celebration absorbed other pagan traditions—holly wreaths, mistletoe, lights, gift giving, and the Yule log. Indeed, since the early years of Christianity the celebration of Christmas has evolved even further, including customs like Santa Claus, stockings, poinsettias, and candy canes, to name just a few.
No matter where our holiday customs come from, it is fascinating to know their origins. Choosing to decorate with pine boughs, holly, and mistletoe doesn’t make you a pagan any more than saying Merry Christmas makes you a Christian. In the end, we celebrate the season by creating our own unique combination of traditions that make it special for our families.
I wish you a Merry Christmas or, as the characters in my novels say at this time of year, Blessed Yule to you all!
The next stop on this wonderful Christmas journey is with author Charlene Newcomb. Be sure to visit her blog!