A few weeks ago one of Wizzley's writers, Veronica, mentioned an old Irish custom that was upheld in our family, the practice of putting a lighted candle in the window on Christmas Eve. The Christian rationale behind this was to say to the Holy Family, who were shelterless on Christmas Eve, that they would be welcome in your house. A pleasant custom upheld by many families even now, but the Christian rationale for the custom overlays a more ancient belief, that in midwinter we celebrate the triumph of light over darkness. The darkest day of the year is the Winter Solstice, Dec 21st, and this was a time when our pagan forebears made a point of celebrating light to encourage the return of the sun.
In fact, we have the coincidence of two distinct sacred years. There is the old pagan year, whose midwinter festival was and still is Yule, a word that is still in use, which worked on cyclic time measured by the endless cycle of the seasons, and the Christian year which works on the Jewish concept of linear time,beginning in Advent four weeks before Christmas, and reaches its high point at Easter Tide, celebrating Christ's resurrection and his defeat of death. [The word Easter is itself derived from the name for a Saxon goddess]. So what we have is a Christian festival linked to an ancient pagan Spring celebration.
The symbolism of the festivals derives from both Christian and Pagan roots. Christianity came into a world that already had a sacred year well-institutionalized and bedded into people's lives. Moreover, the rationalistic dream of starting afresh with totally new ideas is not how life works, for we are all inheritors of the cultures into which we are born.There was in ancient symbolism much that had emotional impact and value. Nothing good should ever be lost, so the early Christians preserved not only the cycle of the sacred year, giving it their own slant, but some of the old pagan customs reintegrated into a new system. Catholicism worked with ancient customs, it was the more puritanical versions of Protestantism that opposed and tried to suppress them.
The Christmas tree is a case in point. As an evergreen it is presented as a sign of the eternal life brought by Christ, but in its older symbolism its evergreen character stands for the endurance of life through the cycle of the year and the time of darkness and cold. The Yule log stands for the preservation of warmth in the coldest time of the year. Holly, whose red berries stand for the sacred blood of Christ, was sacred to pagans because not only are its berries signs of life in the depth of winter, but its leaves are great animal fodder at time when there is little for animals to eat. Mistletoe, which to druids was a sacred symbol of fertility, never acquired a Christian meaning,but as fertility is one of the most ancient and fundamental needs of humans it never needed Christian symbolism.