Welcome back to my series on Holiday History Recollections, where I’m looking at some of the posts I’ve done over the years on the history of holiday words and traditions!

Holiday History Recollection #1
Holiday History Recollection #2

This week, let’s look at some decoration traditions: Christmas wreaths, trees, mistletoe, and a Yule log.

Did you know that Christmas wreaths have their origins in Christmas trees? I’d never really paused to wonder where they came from, but upon reading that, it made total sense.

In Europe, where the pine forests inspired the tradition of bringing something green and eternal into the home to celebrate the bringer of eternal life, the wreath soon took shape too. It happened quite naturally–people had to trim and shape the trees they brought inside for Christmas, which meant boughs left over. Well, these people weren’t wasteful–they decorated with the limbs too.

And the idea of weaving them into a circle was apparently a natural one–another symbol of eternity, after all! I found it fascinating to learn that those first Christmas wreaths were not hung on the door or set on the table to hold candles, but were in fact hung upon the tree! Yep, that’s right. The first wreaths were ornaments.

It’s also important to note that throughout history, wreaths were a symbol of victory–just think of Greeks of old wearing a laurel or olive-leaf crown when they won a game. This is an idea that never went away, so creating one from evergreens at Christmas time was just another element to the symbolism of all Christ represents for us.

The idea of an advent wreath in particular is credited to Johann Hinrich Wichern, a Lutheran pastor.

Like many other Christmas traditions that we now consider standard, wreaths began to be adopted by the general populace all throughout Europe and America during the 19th century.

Christmas trees. Is there anything more iconic these days when it comes to holiday decorations? But have you ever paused to actually consider why we bring an entire tree into our house once a year…or even go to the trouble of erecting fake ones?

The tradition can be traced back to Germany in the Middle Ages. Evergreens had long been a symbol of eternal life, in many religions and cultures, including Christianity. The idea of decorating a tree at this particular time of year however is, interestingly enough, not because of the celebration of the birth of Christ. Nope. It’s because it’s also the feast day of Adam and Eve, and in the Middle Ages, this included reenactments of the story for the masses, who couldn’t read it for themselves and wouldn’t have owned any expensive books like the Bible anyway. Well, in Europe, the only trees still green at that time of year were, of course, evergreens. And the only fruit that lasted that long when picked was the apple. So apples were tied to evergreen branches to represent the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.

But it wasn’t long before that decorated tree began to be a symbol to Germans of the whole season. Each family began cutting down its own tree and bringing it inside–and this came with some rules. The trees had to be trimmed into a perfect triangular shape, to represent the trinity. They were usually decorated with things like apples, pretzels, wafer cookies, nuts, and straw. (Historically, trees were undecorated on Epiphany and the children got to eat the treats!)

Legend has it that Martin Luther was the first to affix lighted candles to the tree, to try to mimic the beauty of stars viewed through pine boughs.

Christmas trees were unique to the area now called Germany for several centuries. But in the late 1700s and early 1800s, German immigrants brought the tradition to America, and it soon caught on here. In England, Prince Albert brought the tradition with him to the palace, and he and Queen Victoria made it iconic there as well in 1848, when the London Illustrated News published an image of them and their children gathered around the tree…with presents underneath. This is the first published record of gifts under a Christmas tree. By the time Albert died in 1861, the tradition had been cemented in England as well, with him getting the credit for it.

Today I’m not examining the etymology of the word itself so much as the history of the tradition of hanging mistletoe at Christmas. Is this part of your family’s tradition?

I’ve never really taken part in it, but certainly we all know that if one pauses beneath mistletoe, one cannot refuse a kiss. In past centuries, this was believed to be good luck and to guarantee love, marriage, and children in the coming year (for those still unmarried). The ball of mistletoe would be burned after the Twelve Days of Christmas to seal the fates of those couples who had kissed beneath it.

But where did the tradition come from? Well it dates back far beyond the coming of Christianity to Europe. For millennia, mistletoe was revered as a sacred plant and thought to contain powers of fertility and good luck and the ability to ward off evil. The plant typically grows on apple trees, but once in a while can be found on oaks (also sacred), so the oak mistletoe is especially sacred and would be cut by Druids with a golden sickle.

The legend goes as follows: the goddess Frigga had a beloved son, Balder, who was the god of summer and hence all things growing and alive. Balder had a terrible dream that he was going to die, so his mother went to every part of nature, above the ground and below, asking them to promise not to kill her son. But she neglected to request this of the mistletoe, which neither had roots below ground nor grew on its own above. So the tricky god Loki, enemy of Balder, made a poison from the berries of the mistletoe and dipped an arrow in it, shooting and killing Balder. For three days, every element and plant tried to revive him, to no avail. Finally, his mother’s own tears revived him, which then turned to little white berries on the mistletoe. She was so overjoyed that she kissed everyone who passed beneath the hanging plant.

You can see where this would easily become part of a tradition surrounding the birth of Christ, right? Someone who lay dead for three days and then was brought back to life, ultimate Love triumphing over Death. Especially since this plant was cut traditionally on the solstice already–and the winter solstice had long been established as the birth of Christ (read why here, if you haven’t already). It was easily incorporated into new traditions and became a lasting one–though still tinged with superstition.

So where do you come down on mistletoe and kissing beneath it? Fun custom? Good luck? Or something to be avoided at all costs?

In Old English, Christmas day was called geol (not to be confused with gaol, which is jail–ha ha ha), taken from Old Norse jol. Jol was a heathen feast day, taken over by English so long ago that no one’s sure exactly when it happened. Though we do know that “jolly” comes from jol. 😉

Origianlly, geol, or yule, meant solely Christmas Day. It also happens that there was a cognate, giuli, that was the Anglo-Saxon name for a two-month midwinter season of feasting, so the two got mixed together. When English first borrowed the word, it meant the 12 Day Feast of Christmas–December 25 through January 6, the Epiphany. It was largely replaced by the word Christmas by the eleventh century, except for in Danish-settled parts of England.

Writers, however, revived the word in the 19th century to capture the particular charm of Christmas in Merry Ol’ England. Oh yes, it’s always the writers, LOL.

Yultide (literally yule time or Christmastime) was recorded in the 15th century, and the first written mention of the yule log is from the 17th century and was a ceremonially chosen log (sometimes an entire tree)  picked to have an enduring burn for Christmas.

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