What about Greenery, Wreaths and Trees?

What is Christmas for atheists, greenery, wreaths and trees

Greenery was often used to decorate for winter solstice and new year celebrations, pre-Christianity. For some, the greenery symbolized the coming spring and hope for prosperity and good fortune. Wreaths symbolized victory, hospitality, the circle of the year, as well as the circle of life. Druids were known to decorate with garland, holly and mistletoe.

A quick note about mistletoe: Mistletoe was revered as a cure-all by the ancient greeks. The celtic druids thought it was special because it was green in the middle of winter. Both groups thought it had special properties of healing and re-invigorating. (please note, don’t try this at home, while american mistletoe is only slightly toxic, european mistletoe is quite toxic. It is likely the “invigorating” experience was the early stages of poisoning)

Evergreen trees are known in many cultures as symbols of longevity, renewal, endurance, and even revered as the homes of gods or goddesses. In some cultures, trees act as a symbolic gate, for the re-entry of departed loved ones.

Trees were decorated outdoors at least as far back as Saturnalia. These trees were decorated with sun, stars, gingerbread shaped like animals and gods, and perhaps coins. At some point, trees came indoors.

Christmas Eve had also been adopted as the feast day of Adam and Eve during medieval times. Some trees were decorated with apples symbolizing the apple Eve ate in the garden of Eden. These trees were also called Paradise Trees.

While it is not entirely clear whether indoor trees were part of the Saturnalia or Kalends celebrations, we can feel certain trees came indoors by 1600 in Strasburg in Protestant homes. There are records of tree decorating being denounced by a Protestant¹  theologian around the middle of the 17th century, the criticisms aimed to redirect this practice toward more appropriate celebrations of Jesus. These indoor trees were hung by the trunk from the ceiling (upside down), in the home and decorated with homemade decorations that were often food-based. They included nuts, marzipan and animals.

Indoor decorated trees slowly made their way across Europe, until in 1840 or so, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert very publicly had a Christmas tree. Quickly, opportunistic doll makers introduced tree toppers as winged fairy dolls. Birds of paradise, glockenspiels (similar to a xylophone), and flowers were also used. Glass blowers also took advantage of the new trend and introduced blown glass ornaments.

Community trees were also introduced by businesses and communities as part of their advertising efforts.

Later, trees in homes were also decorated with unwrapped gifts hung in the branches. (Wrapping gifts was not widespread until the 19th century.)

So, if you choose to celebrate with a decorated indoor tree or greenery, you are in good, and not necessarily christian, company. Greenery creates a transformative connection to nature that can be embraced by anyone.

Next up, Gifts From People You Don’t Know…

¹Protestant is a christian religion that started bubbling up as a plan to reform christianity around the 12th century and took root with Martin Luther and the Gutenberg press in the early 1500s. Protestant beliefs differ from other christian religions, such as Catholicism, in several ways, they do not revere saints, Mary as the mother of Jesus, and rebuked the purchasing of forgiveness. In addition, they do not believe in transubstantiation, the Catholic belief that the wine and bread included in the sacrament of eucharist actually change into the body and blood of Jesus.

Why December 25?

What is Christmas for atheists, why do we celebrate on December 25?
What is Christmas for atheists, why do we celebrate on December 25?

If you live in North America as I do, you already know about Christmas on December 25 and winter solstice on December 21.  Let’s start with winter and how Christmas wound up on December 25.

To understand how this all came together, we need to revisit our understanding of time. Our earliest measurements of time were based on the phases of the moon. As a reminder, the moon orbits the earth every 29 days and its light is provided by the sun reflecting off of its surface. For early people, this was a visible and predictable way to measure the passage of time. Seasons were another way to measure the passage of time. Our earliest calendars used these to create a year.

However, that was rather imprecise since 12 months x 29 days =348 and the earth takes 356 ¼ days to orbit the sun.

Over time in the western world, the Roman calendar and then the Julian calendar revised the lunar-based calendars to accommodate for this, but still fell short. Winter solstice on the calendar we use today falls on December 21. However, on the calendars used in earlier times, there was a bit more wiggle and December 25 was the date for the winter solstice.

In early times, many celebrations were held mid-late winter. Here are some of the celebrations we know about:

Saturnalia celebrated the god of agriculture. 12/17-12/24.  Records of this festival exist from 63 BCE until at least 14 CE. Shops closed, public banquets were held, gifts were exchanged, particularly candles, gambling, feasting and alcohol consumption were all part of the fun.

Mithras celebrated the birth of Mithras, the sun-god during the winter solstice. It was also called Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, this celebration was the primary festival of the 3rd century, 200-300 CE.

Kalends was the name of the first of the month for the Romans. It was also,a secular New Year’s festival celebrated 1/1-1/5. Records of this festival exist from around 300 CE-1100 CE. It was common to decorate with greenery such as wreaths and garlands, eat, drink, exchange small gifts. A spirit of generosity permeated the celebration. As these traditions evolved, role reversals were added to the festivities and often masters served their slaves. There were also gender role reversals and men dressed as women.

Saturnalia, Mithras and Kalends were not in line with the behavior practices encouraged by the early church. Far too irreverent and jovial. And yet, the celebrations were so wide-spread and enjoyed that they followed to adage, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em!

Around 340 CE, Julius I, Bishop of Rome declared that the birth of Jesus would be celebrated on the same day as winter solstice, also a date of celebration for Mithras and other sun gods. (Biblical scholars have calculated that Jesus’ birth was likely April, May or September.)  By this time, winter solstice had shifted in the calendar to December 25. By 354 CE, Christmas was included on the Roman calendar. The christian church discouraged the wilder aspects of the solstice celebrations and encouraged mass attendance and solemnity.

So, there you have it, how Jesus birth came to be celebrated on December 25.  I would love to hear from you. Are the history bits I missed? How does your family celebrate?

Next up, what about Greenery, Wreaths and Trees?

What is Christmas?

I was raised Catholic. I attended Catholic school through college. Our Christmas traditions included attending church on Christmas Eve and a party afterwards. Gifts were received from aunts, uncles, parents and Santa Claus. That was that.

When I stopped believing and it came time to celebrate winter holidays, I had to rethink everything I thought I knew. What would these celebrations be for me, what would they be for my family?

I wanted to understand what the origins of winter holidays were, how did Santa, gifts, Jesus’ birth and Christmas trees all come to be? I had heard that many Christmas traditions were rooted in pagan rituals and celebrations. But which ones? And how? I also wanted to try to avoid the myopic worldview of my own childhood. To learn and share other celebrations our friends and neighbors might have, celebrations that we could understand and appreciate.

Since many parents are dealing with a similar situation, I wanted to share what I learned and how we created our family celebrations. In the next several blog posts, I will share what I learned as well as how our family chooses to celebrate. 

First, why December 25?