It’s Christmas, and here at AH we’ve been looking into the origins of the festive period.
The concept of a celebration around the winter solstice, as with so many other ‘traditions’, predates the Christian era, probably by millennia. In pre-Christian Northern Europe, the period was known as Jul, still preserved in the English language as Yule, and the custom of burning the Yule Log goes back to at least the Vikings, who traditionally brought in the Yule Log and drank mead whilst it burned, celebrating the return of light after the prolonged darkness of the Scandinavian winter. During the medieval period, an entire tree was sometimes brought into the house with great ceremony. The tree/alcohol traditional is of course still prevalent today!
In the UK, many of our earliest monuments are aligned to the rising midwinter sun, including Stonehenge, pointing to traditions going back many thousands of years to the earliest farmers and settlements in this country.
The Romans knew the season as Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, which translates roughly as ‘the (re)birth of the unconquered Sun’, and through a period of sacrifice and feasting, the people celebrated the prospect of the lengthening of the days and the return of summer. The Roman Pope Julius I chose December 25th to celebrate the birth of Jesus primarily because that date already hosted two related festivals of birth: the Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, and the celebration of the birth of the god Mithras, known as the ‘Sun of Righteousness’.
Christmas decorations too have their roots in earlier pre-Christian traditions. The Romans were said to have decorated living trees with fragments of metal and images of Bacchus, god of wine and revelry, whilst twelve candles on a tree honoured the sun god Mithras. The writings of Tertullian (c. AD155-240) suggest early Christians imitated their pagan neighbours by decorating their homes with candles and laurel at the turn of the year.
Many more historical analogies are available and well worth a bit of online, or perish the thought, library research!
We at Armour Heritage wish you all a peaceful and happy season, whatever your belief system (or lack thereof), and a prosperous and successful 2016.