Our Holiday Symbols Could Unite Us
Here in the US the holiday season is filled with bickering. Many devout Christians become irritated at the secularization of Christmas and want us to remember the reason for the season. Then modern Pagans become irate and encourage the irate Christians to remember that the true reason for the season is the winter solstice.
Then arguing breaks out over the symbols of the holiday. What we forget is that symbolically, whether we are celebrating the returning sun, the birth of Christ, the lamp that continued to burn or even the seven days of Kwanzaa, on some spiritual level we are all celebrating the same thing.
Often we look to the origins of our symbols and traditions to defend our position. Perhaps it is time to focus on our similarities instead of our differences.
What if we celebrated the season side by side, marveling at the unity we share, rather than being divided by our differences?
When we look at the origins of many of our seasonal symbols it seems we share some clear themes. Our symbols come from a reverence for life, and a celebration of light. What could better describe the holiday season, be it Christmas, Yule, Chanukah, Kwanzaa or others?
Here are some quick descriptions of the origins of a few of our common holiday symbols.
Today we decorate and hang wreaths on our doors during the holidays. We also make advent wreaths that lie flat on a table with four candles arranged around the wreath and a fifth candle in the center.
This tradition seems to have a universal appeal. Many earlier civilizations used greens and candles as symbols of hope.
In ancient Rome, wreaths were a sign of victory. In pre-Christian Germany, greens were brought into the home and arranged with candles as a reminder that warmer weather would soon return.
During the Scandinavian winter in ancient times a wreath of greens would be made with candles all around it. The candles were lit and prayers were said to the God of Light to turn the wheel back toward the sun.
Bringing an evergreen into the house and decorating it was an early European Christian tradition to celebrate Christmas. It is a tradition many Christians and secular-Christmas-celebrators enjoy today.
Because evergreens stay green all year round they have always been a sign of hope and life for cultures around the world. Evergreens in the form of trees, wreaths and garlands were brought into home to celebrate eternal life by the Egyptian, Chinese and Hebrew people, as well as the Scandinavians.
The Evergreen tree was also used in traditional medieval morality plays given on December 24 to symbolize the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden.
Mistletoe was considered sacred and mystical throughout pre-Christian Europe. Druid priests gathered mistletoe at both the summer and winter solstices to use in their rituals. Mistletoe was associated with Greco-Roman Saturnalia; another December holiday.
Kissing under the mistletoe seems to come from two origins. Many European cultures honored mistletoe as a bringer of fertility. Therefore kissing under the mistletoe could bring love, fertility, prosperity and long life.
Scandinavians saw mistletoe as a bringer of peace, so kissing under the mistletoe could mean a truce, or a treaty.
There are also myths that give mistletoe the ability to heal the sick and to restore life to the dead.
Modern Pagans claim virtually all Christmas traditions as their own. While some may argue over certain traditions the fact that holly was first a Pagan Yule tradition can never be disputed.
Ancient Romans associated holly with their Sun God who returns at the winter solstice. Ancient Celts brought holly into their homes in winter. The green leaves of the holly symbolized eternal life. The red berries symbolized the menstrual blood of the Goddess.
Again we can look to the Roman festival of Saturnalia for the origin of holiday candles. Candles were lit against the darkness as the winter solstice approached.
The Druids used candles to actually symbolize the sun in their celebration of the winter solstice.
Later, Christians placed candles in their windows as a symbolic guide to the Christ child, while the candles in the advent wreath symbolized the light of Christ.
At Chanukah eight candles are burned; one for each night the lamp oil lasted.
At Kwanzaa seven candles are burned; one for each of the Seven Values of Kwanzaa.
Rather than allowing our differences to separate us, let's gather around the candles and celebrate the light we all share.