The most important holiday of the year, culturally and commercially speaking, is almost upon us. Months in anticipation, people from countries of the “so called” Western Civilization — Europe and its former colonies — start decorating their homes, businesses, streets, and well almost everything, with a wide range of Christmas related ornaments, spending huge amounts of money not just on gifts and food products but in the decorations themselves.
As a tradition that has been celebrated for centuries on every country that European settlers have colonised, and more recently on others as well, the wide range of icons and stories behind this cultural event are, to say the least, countless. Sure, the main idea is the birth of Jesus Christ, but there are many more layers of tradition to the ‘Christmas’ cultural phenomenon. That being said, we want to share with you some of some of its most significant symbols from around the world.
The symbolic meaning of Christmas trees originates in Pagan societies where the evergreen represents life, rebirth, and stamina needed to endure the winter months. It was believed back then that evil spirits were at their strongest during these months. To thwart the nasties, evergreens were brought into the home as symbols of protection. These evergreens were alight with candles, supposedly to “light up” the darkest, coldest conditions and thereby scare away naughty spirits.
It wasn’t until about the 18th century that Christianity absorved the bright, joyful symbolism of the Christmas tree mixing it with the concept of the Tree of Life, the representation of the immaculate state of humanity free from corruption and Original Sin before the Fall. Early Christians added candles and apples to their Christmas trees. These candles represented the light of Christ. The apples symbolized knowledge which spawned man’s original sin, according to Christian belief.
Santa Claus, also known as Saint Nicholas, or Father Christmas, is a legendary figure said to bring gifts to the homes of good children during the late evening and overnight hours of Christmas Eve, December 24.
Saint Nicholas of Myra seems to be the primary inspiration for this character. He was a 4th century Greek Christian bishop of Myra in Turkey. Nicholas was famous for his generous gifts to the poor. Pre-modern representations of the gift-giver from church history and folklore, notably St. Nicholas and Sinterklaas, merged with the British character Father Christmas to create the character known to everyone as Santa Claus.
Candle in the Window
Ireland, like most countries, has a number of Christmas traditions that are all of its own having their roots in the time when Gaelic culture and religion of the country were being suppressed, yet some of them still exist today.
The placing of a lit candle on the window of a house on Christmas eve is still practiced today. It has a number of purposes but primarily it was a welcoming gesture to welcome Mary and Joseph as they travelled looking for shelter. The candle also indicated a safe place for priests to perform mass since during Penal Times (15th-16th Century) this was not allowed on the island.
Another peculiar element of the tradition is that the candle should be lit by the youngest member of each household and only be extinguished by a girl bearing the name ‘Mary.’
The first known use comes from the Druids living in Britain around 100 A.D. These Druids thought that Mistletoe could perform miracles like cure diseases and protect people from witches. They even thought it could help people and animals have more babies. The Druids had a special ceremony that would happen in late December or early January where they would cut mistletoe out of oak trees and then give the mistletoe to people to hang in their houses so that it would ward off evil spirits. This probably explains why mistletoe became connected to Christmas, the time of year is the same.
The current tradition of kissing your sweetheart under the mistletoe might have come from a Viking legend. Around 800 A.D., Vikings had a lot of myths about their gods. One of their gods, Balder, was killed with a poison made from mistletoe. His mother, Frigga, was able to bring him back to life after three days by reversing the effects of the poison. Once she did that, she kissed everyone who walked under mistletoe because she was so happy to get her son back.
This popular Mexican item consists of a clay pot covered in colourful papers and other elements to shape into many different forms. People take turns beating it with a stick until it breaks and candy and other assorted products like peanuts and fruits come out for everyone’s pickings off the ground.
Around the Christmas season, people break seven-point star-shaped piñatas. There is a theory establishing that each point represents one of the seven deadly capital sins, so this way Mexicans get rid of lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride before the birthday of Jesus. However many people still believe it represents the star of Bethlehem.
Christmas is so rich in symbol and myth that a full encyclopedia could be written about it. Do you have one in particular myth or symbol that is special to you? Be sure to share with us!
Remember that what’s really important about Christmas, even more than its symbols, is taking time during the year to celebrate with the people you care most about, and be sure to let them know that!
So, from everyone at the Graphic Mint, we have one thing left to say: ‘Nollaig Shona Duit!