• Ali Isaac

The Pre-Christian Origins of #Christmas Decorating

Updated: Sep 4, 2020

So in between looking after sick children, having teeth pulled at the dentist, and trying to get my Christmas shopping finished started, I’ve been decorating my home for Crimbo. Now, I’m not a religious person, but I do enjoy Christmas. I enjoy giving gifts to the people I love, I enjoy the festivities, catching up with family and friends, and the special foods we wouldn’t eat at any other time of year, not to mention mulled wine. And I love the decorating. As anyone who follows me on Pinterest will have gathered… sorry, folks!

Each year, I try to make my own decs. This morning, I spelled ‘NOEL’ for my mantle out of twigs and bits and pieces… although at the moment it just says ‘NOL’, as I’m waiting for some help with the ‘E’. No doubt it will stay that way for the season! I’ve made wreaths out of wire and feather boas and trimmings from my tree. And I try to reinvent my existing decs to get a fresh look every year.

It’s all about the birth of Christ, right? Wrong!

As I’m doing all of this, I have become increasingly aware of how it all started, and what it truly represents. All you Christians out there may be in denial about this, but the event we celebrate as Christmas really has nothing at all to do with the birth of Christ. I’m sorry if that upsets you, but its a fact. No one really knows for sure when Jesus was born, but as the shepherds were still out in the open with their flocks, its quite likely they were still at summer pasture.

Those pesky pagans…

Of course, it’s all the fault of those pesky pagans. They refused to give up their mid-winter celebrations, so the Christians desperately needed a way to seize control. Some time during the fourth century AD, they came up with the cunning plan to celebrate Jesus’s birthday at Midwinter. Gradually over the centuries, the two festivals merged into Christmas as we know it today. This was the kind of clever tactic they were good at; they successfully absorbed other pagan festivals, too, such as Samhain with Halloween, Imbolc with St Bridget’s Day.

So what’s this got to do with decorating?

But I was talking about seasonal decorating. It’s a strange thing to do, so why do we do it? Well, our beloved Christmas tree is a seventeenth century German custom adopted in the UK and Ireland during Victorian times. We all love a well-decorated tree, don’t we? Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without it! And it just so happens that this tradition also stems from a far more ancient pagan custom.

Yes, the pagans cut boughs from evergreen trees and shrubs and brought them inside to decorate their homes at the Winter solstice. Why? Let’s think about it…

The hardship of winter

It’s the middle of winter; it’s dark, cold, wet and maybe frosty or snowy. All the deciduous trees and plants have died or are hibernating. Crops cannot grow in frozen or flooded ground. The food stores are running low. Many animals are hibernating or have migrated so even hunting for food is difficult. The days are short, the nights are long. Life seems to have slowed. It’s certainly more full of hardship than it ever was before. Could the Gods have forsaken them?

Yet despite the ‘death’ of winter, the evergreens continue to push stoically through the snow, bracing their stunning shield of vibrant green against the cruel onslaught of winter. How did they flourish in the deep dark season, when all else hid or failed? What magical powers did they possess which ensured their survival? These plants must surely be blessed by the Gods and full of potent power. More than that, they must have been seen as a sign of hope, and a promise of new life to come in the lush and bountiful impending spring and summer.

Sacred Evergreens

In particular, mistletoe and holly were greatly venerated by the Druids. Mistletoe, despite being poisonous to humans, was thought to bring fertility and healing. When found growing on an oak tree, it was considered especially powerful, and would be gathered on the 6th night of the full moon after winter solstice. It was hung over doorways to ward off evil.

Holly was another plant sacred to the Druids. With its glossy green leaves and bright red berries, it’s hardly surprising. Although poisonous to humans, its leaves and berries were believed to have medicinal properties, and it was also hung up in the home for protection.

Symbol of hope

Now it makes sense. Bringing the greenery indoors not only served the purpose of brightening the home and bringing good cheer, but was a symbol of hope for the future, and perhaps shared its magical powers and protection with those who dwelt there. Yet it seems they never cut down the trees to carry inside as we do; they merely removed branches and sprigs. Perhaps to cut down and kill something which showed the only signs of life during the death of winter was seen as a bad omen.

We weren’t the only ones…

The ancient Irish and Celts weren’t the only pagans to carry out this practice. The ancient Egyptians used palm branches for the same purposes, and the Romans decorated trees with bits of metal and images of their fertility God, Bacchus, at the festival of Saturnalia, which begins on Dec 17th and lasts until just after the solstice.