What a year 2020 has been. Amongst the many difficulties, one rare highlight has been the recovery and surge of interest in wildlife and the natural world. Even 2020 couldn’t stop the leaves falling and now we’re getting ready for the strangest of Christmas times of our lives. Maybe now is a good time to reflect upon some of the things that have become a part of Christmas
Christmas and some of its traditions remind us that our lives are inextricably linked with nature and the cyclical rhythms of the natural world.
Many of things we associate with Christmas are rooted in Pagan traditions. In our busy modern world the relatively simple Pagan life is generally misunderstood, for example, the term Pagan came from Christians and was used to describe anyone that wasn’t a Christian, which at that time, was most of us. Today, Christianity maintains many Pagan traditions. Let’s take a look at some of them and see how may you know.
The Winter Solstice is the origin of Christmas. The Winter Solstice was a time of celebration for the Romans, Celts, Norse, and Druids, amongst others. They all held big celebration’s around the winter solstice.
For us, living in the northern hemisphere, winter solstice ( the shortest day of the year) falls around 21st December, and this is why Christmas is in late December around the same time as many existing pagan holidays.
The winter solstice was a huge part of pagan life, just as Christmas is for us today. Pagans were primarily agricultural people and winter marked the end of harvest and toiling in the fields The Winter solstice was an opportunity to enjoy the company of loved ones, to feast and be Merry.
Winter in the northern hemisphere is a dark, cold, and often hungry period, when people’s spirits could easily drop, so the winter solstice celebrations helped to keep people entertained and enjoy themselves working to prepare their land before the spring solstice, that would see the sun come around once again.
The Romans celebrated Saturnalia between 17 and 24 December. This was in honour of Saturn, the Roman god of agriculture. The Romans would spend the week of Saturnalia, by feasting, drinking, giving gifts, and being joyful. Unlike us, The Romans exchanged only small gifts for good luck. They believed this would bring in a bountiful harvest the next year.
So what about the big man himself? Well, he was known as St. Nicholas,, a patron saint of children, the poor, and prostitutes. (who knew the last one!) St Nicholas lived in the 4th century AD, and it is said, he was a bishop who was known for giving gifts to the poor. The legend describes St Nicholas as having a large beard and he wore a long cloak. But even before St Nicholas, there was Odin, a god worshipped by early Germanic tribes. The legends say Odin was an older man with a long, white beard. It says Odin would ride through the night skies with his 8-legged horse called Sleipnir
The story goes that the children would fill their boots with straw and carrots and leave them on the roof for Sleipner to feed on. Odin would reward the children by leaving small presents in their boots.
The Santa Claus we know today, is clearly based on the traditions of St. Nicholas, Odin, and Sleipnir, but he’ s a far more modern creation than that. Today’s Father Christmas was born, not from myth and legend, but instead, directly from the marketing department of Coca Cola, whose White bearded, barrel bellied character, clad all in red, was the star of 1930s America. His popularity spread faster than Dancer and Prancer et al, on a busy Christmas Eve.
This year we won’t be carol singing for fear of spreading the Corona virus, but the tradition of groups of people singing door to door around their local villages was derived from the Pagan activity of wassailing. The word comes from the Anglo-Saxon phrase ‘waes hael’, meaning ‘good health’. The wassailers would walk around their villages in small groups, singing to banish evil spirits and wishing good health to their neighbours. Of course, no wassailing group was complete without their traditional drink that was made from mulled ale, mixed with curdled cream, roasted apples, eggs, spices, and sugar. It’s seems the Pagans knew who to party!
In the thirteenth Century, St Francis took the essence of wassailing to develop what we know today as Christmas Carolling
Wildlife and nature is inextricably linked to our Christmas celebrations . Let’s take a look at some of the species that have become part of all of our Christmas’s
Robin’s are found in many gardens and parks They are a firm favourite for many people. They are easy to spot, inquisitive, and have a loud song that they sing from prominent perches throughout winter.
Both males and females have the red Breast feathers. Robins very territorial defending their “patch’ vigorously, except during the breeding season, when the male’s let the female’s build a nest in their territory , Both sexes travel extensively from December in search of a mate, and are therefore much more visible.
There are many stories about how robin’s became associated with Christmas. My favourite is the theory that Victorian posties, who wore bright red tunics were nicknamed ‘robin redbreasts’ so it’s no coincidence that Robin’s began appearing on Christmas cards during Victorian times
Reindeer are a big part of Christmas today, but they are relative newcomers to our Christmas story, when they featured in Clement Clarke Moore’s poem ’Twas the night before Christmas’ Even the most famous reindeer of them all – Rudolph – only became a part of Christmas in 1939 when Robert L. May, a department store worker wrote a Christmas story to help increase sales at Christmas.
Donkeys are depicted in the nativity scenes and are one of the original animals of Christmas. A popular myth is that the cross on the donkey’s back is a reminder that a donkey carried Jesus to the manger in Bethlehem Of course Donkeys have their very own Christmas song ’Little Donkey’
Talking of songs, Swans feature in the 12 days of Christmas. Mute swans are resident in the UK and can be seen in virtually every area of the UK, all year -round. Other species, such as Bewick’ swans migrate here for winter. Amazingly, almost all of the Whooper swans from Iceland migrate to the UK and Ireland every year. One of the easier ways to identify swan species is by the colour of their bills; The native mute swans have orange bills, whilst the winter migrant whooper swans bills are yellow.
Another bird to feature in the 12 days of Christmas is the Partridge, that becomes the first gift of Christmas in a pear tree. This song is about gifts given by a true love. However, it is claimed the ‘true love’ mentioned in the song is said to represent god, whilst the partridge in the pear tree represents Jesus.
Like the partridge, turtle doves also have a religious connection. The two turtle doves signifying the old and new testament. Doves are often seen as symbols of peace, love and loyalty.
Of course it’s not only fauna that has become part of Christmas for us. Flora features extensively to. Mistletoe was a symbol of love and friendship in ancient Norse mythology. In Britain, perhaps influenced by the Norse tradition, the custom of kissing under mistletoe developed, with a berry picked from the sprig before a kiss. When all the berries were gone there could be no more kissing.
The reputation of Mistletoe as a romantic plant surprises me. I see little romance in a parasitic plant, amazing as they are. Mistletoe attaches itself to a tree and then grows out of a branch, living off the tree’s food and resources. Mistletoe is toxic to us, but like holly berries, it makes a great source of food for some of our wildlife. Something mistletoe has in common with holly is that they are both ‘dioecious’. This means they have distinct ‘male’ and ‘female’ plants – only the female plants have the berries. Even the name, mistletoe translates as ‘poo on a stick’, from the Anglo Saxon ‘mistel’ meaning dung and ‘tan’ meaning twig or stick. Seeds are spread by birds ingesting the fruit and fertilised by the pooing in the tree.
Holly is found in a variety of habitats from woodland to gardens, holly, or more precisely, its berries, provide an important food source for many birds, including redwings and fieldfares. In pagan Britain, holly was used traditionally at winter solstice to ward off evil spirits and celebrate new growth.
So how did the correlation between mistletoe and kissing start? The tradition goes all the way back to the pagans. The Romans, Celts, Druids, and the Norse all had a thing about mistletoe. It was considered to be a highly sacred plant, involved in several pagan rituals. In the Roman world, mistletoe honoured the god Saturn. To keep him happy, they would perform ‘fertility rituals’ underneath the sprigs of mistletoe – and yes, that is exactly what it sounds like! One myth, I really enjoy comes from the Druids, where mistletoe symbolised peace and joy. In times of war, if enemies met underneath woodland mistletoe, they would drop their weapons and form a truce until the next day.
Christmas Tree Over the years, the evergreen fir has become the tree of choice for people to celebrate Christmas. Christians saw it as a sign of everlasting life, while the Romans used firs to decorate their temples at the festival of Saturnalia. Pagans used its branches to decorate their homes during the winter solstice as a symbol of the spring to come. Across many parts of northern Europe, cherry or hawthorn were used as Christmas trees – plants were put into pots and brought inside in the hope they would flower at Christmas. Some people in the UK prefer the our native Scots pine. It is an absolutely majestic tree which can live for centuries. It’s mostly found in the Caledonian Forest . Scot’s pine supports an incredible array of wildlife, including red squirrels, capercaillie and crested tits. There are also numerous insects which make their homes amongst the Caledonian pinewoods.
Decorating the Christmas Tree
The Romans are believed to be the first to decorate trees. It’s one of a number of traditions, including feasting, drinking, and exchanging gifts during Saturnalia. The Romans also hung small metal ornaments on trees outside their homes. Each of these little ornaments represented a god, either Saturn or the family’s personal patron saint. Early Germanic tribes also decorated their trees, this time with fruits and candles to honour the god Odin throughout winter solstice.
So Christmas, like so many of our modern day celebrations draws heavily on traditions from across Europe. In some countries, such as Poland, Finland and Denmark it is a tradition to celebrate animals at Christmas by giving them gifts. In Poland, when families share a traditional sweet biscuit they will break some off to share with the animals, as the legend goes, sharing the food will enable the animals to talk at midnight. In Denmark, it is a tradition to walk in the woods to feed the birds and other animals at Christmas time, and in Finland, they hang food on trees for the birds and the animals to share with the wildlife.
Christmas 2020 will be unlike any we have had before Many of us won’t be able to celebrate with our friends and families- and that is truly tragic So many things we associate with Christmas may not happen, but we can rely on nature to keep her cyclical routines giving us the stability and comfort through what has been a year like no other Wishing you all a peaceful, safe Christmas