What Are the Origins of Common Christmas Symbols?
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"An enormous number of traditions we now associate with Christmas have their roots in pre-Christian pagan religious traditions. Some of these have social, sexual, or cosmological connotations that might lead educated, culturally sensitive moderns to discard the traditions once they have understood their roots more clearly. . .
"The pre-Christian elements of Christmas hail primarily from Europe. . . From southern Europe come such familiar pagan traditions as feasting, fertility rituals, tree worship, and the exchange of gifts. From the harsher lands of northern Europe come the ancient conventions we identify with the term 'Yule.' The Yule log tradition, now almost forgotten, rose from this stream. So too are many of the details of holiday feasting, the ritual use of candles, and the earliest forerunners of Santa Claus. . .
"Here is a brief review of the pre-Christian sources from which some of our best-loved holiday traditions sprang.
"Evergreens symbolize immortality and the continuity of life. . . The Romans, too, decorated their homes and public places with evergreens near the time of the winter solstice. Among the forerunners of today's holiday gifts were strenae, tree branches presented to political and military leaders as tokens of loyalty. . .
"The holiday's most conspicuous smaller plant is mistletoe. . . Historically, mistletoe has long been associated with both magic and fertility. Sprigs of mistletoe were once fastened over the conjugal bed on the wedding night. Our modern use of mistletoe as a social aphrodisiac is clearly related.
"Nineteenth-century German immigrants to the United States were among the first to use a recognizable Christmas tree in this country, so it is often assumed that the Christmas tree hails from the traditions of northern Europe. In fact, it is more authentically a product of much older southern traditions. Ancient Egyptians viewed the evergreen tree as a fertility symbol. During the winter solstice they decorated their homes with palm fronds, using them as Romans would later use boughs of fir. . .
"Gift giving is an inescapable part of Christmas. Christian legend assumes that the tradition began when the Magi presented gifts to the baby Jesus. . . To believe that you have to pitch centuries of history out behind the manger. Long before New Testament times, the Romans were exchanging gifts."