After a very early Easter when all sorts of daft explanations were about, it seems timely to explore some traditions.
The tree is the centre of most Christmas displays but where did this tradition of bringing a tree indoors come from. The fir tree is the traditional Christmas tree and the branches of this tree have been used for centuries to decorate houses during winter festivals. The evergreen nature of the fir represented life and fertility and was a celebration of the coming of spring. The modern tradition seems to have started in Germany around the middle ages but caught on in England during the 1880s when Queen Victoria's husband, Prince Albert, had a Christmas tree installed in Windsor Castle. Trees were decorated with candles, nuts and fruits in those days.
Part of many people's Christmases these days are chocolate Yule logs. These haven't always been covered in chocolate as the tradition predates the invention of chocolate and hails back many years to a time before central heating. We also have a tradition of the twelve days of Christmas and these traditions overlap.
In Nordic times winter solstice celebrations involved the burning of a Yule log. They were always very careful to make sure the log stayed lit as it was unlucky to have to re-light it. A large tree was felled and brought indoors in a grand ceremony. The widest end of the tree was placed into the fire and lit from remains of previous year's log. The tree was then slowly fed into fire over the festival. After twelve days, the remains of the Yule log were safely stored to protect the house against lightning and evil spirits for the following year.
Anglo-Saxon pagans would light candles on top of the Yule Log to light up the house and welcome the early spring sun. In fairly recent times on Christmas Eve, the youngest member of party would light two candles from the burning Yule log and everybody present would make silent wishes about the year to come. Burning Yule logs and bringing in a small log or piece of coal if visiting just after midnight on New Year's Eve continued in the west and north of England into the first part of the 20th century.
In the dark days of winter the cheeky Robin brightens up our gardens with his lovely red breast. There are any number of myths as to how it got that red breast amongst which was it being scorched by fire while taking water to lost souls in purgatory or that it was stained by the blood of Christ as the robin comforted him on the cross. The Robin is now very much a symbol of Christmas but this does not go back very far. The 'tradition' comes from an association with the postman.
Victorian postmen wore red jackets which earned them the nickname 'robins'. The bird then became popular on Christmas cards as a symbol of the postman delivering them.
Bright red holly is widely used as a Christmas decoration and is often used on top of the Christmas pudding. Before Christianity, holly was the male symbol of fertility and ivy the female partner. During festivals in the dark days of winter, a young boy dressed in holly and a young girl in ivy would parade through the streets bringing life to the most miserable part of the year. Bringing holly into the house was also thought to protect a home against evil fairies. It was considered bad luck to fell a whole holly tree so only the odd branch was taken. It was also accepted that witches ran along the tops of hedges and a strategically placed holly trees caused an excellent barrier.
Better hang on to that sprig of holly to ward off mischievous fairies!
Another tradition from the mists of the past is very welcome today. A stolen kiss under the mistletoe is all very well but why do we lock lips under this particular evergreen and poisonous plant? It was considered a plant of vivacity and fertility by Druids, with its always green leaves and wintry white berries. Kissing under it is thought to come from Norse mythology. There are variations on the story involving Baldr, son the Norse goddess of love and fertility, Frigg. He was supposedly plagued with dreams of his impending death and as an enemy arrow made of mistletoe hits him, Frigg's tears fall upon the mistletoe arrow and turn it into white berries. Baldr is brought back to life and Frigg proclaims that anyone standing under the miraculous plant will come to no harm and will receive a kiss as a token of love.
It sounds like a convenient excuse which we all use now, but in Victorian times male servants were allowed to steal a kiss from their best girl under the mistletoe and a refusal would bring bad luck. It is said that a man would pluck a berry from the bunch with each kiss and the privilege would end when all the berries were gone. Next time you pucker up under the mistletoe, remember you're keeping a tradition going.
Whilst many people think the strange way Easter moves about each year is something to do with religion it is actually an astronomical phenomenon. It obviously has historic connotations impacting on all the religions 'of the book' but is actually based on the movements of the moon.
This is a bit odd given that so much of the Church Calendar hangs on the date of Easter Sunday but when this is actually to be, is based on it being the first Sunday, after the first full moon, after the official spring equinox (March 21st).
There you go! Simple isn't it.