Yule, Saturnalia, and how the solstice shaped modern Christmas traditions

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KESWICK, ENGLAND – DECEMBER 21: A Yule log lies between two of the stones during the evening of the Winter Solstice at the Castlerigg Stone circle on December 21, 2014 in Keswick, England. The circle dates back over 4,000 years to neolithic times and is a popular meeting place for people from all over Britain who come to celebrate both the winter and summer solstices with the beautiful Cumbrian fells as a backdrop. (Photo by Ian Forsyth/Getty Images)

(KTAL/KMSS) – Christmas trees, holly, mistletoe, and cider are staples of the holidays but these traditional parts of our holiday celebrations predate Christmas by several hundred years.

Tuesday is the Winter Solstice, the longest night of the year and the official start of the winter season. Many solstice celebrations became incorporated into Christmas celebrations over centuries as Christianity spread across Europe and cultures mixed together.

The U.S. Forest Service has a helpful breakdown of several plants we associate with Christmas and the traditions behind them, the most prominent being the Christmas tree, or Yule tree. Evergreens were part of the Roman celebration of Saturnalia and tree worship was a part of Scandanavian culture. Even after their conversion to Christianity the tradition stayed, bringing an evergreen tree into your home during the solstice to scare away the devil.

Picture taken on December 21, 2017 shows German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier lighting candles on the Christmas tree after the recording of the annual Christmas speech at the Bellevue Palace in Berlin. (Photo by Michael Kappeler / POOL / AFP) / (Photo by MICHAEL KAPPELER/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

In 1500’s Germany the tradition of adding candles, apples, and cookies became popular with Lutherans. The tradition didn’t spread to England until Queen Victoria married Prince Albert of Germany, where the decorations became more elaborate.

KESWICK, ENGLAND – DECEMBER 21: A Yule log lies between two of the stones during the evening of the Winter Solstice at the Castlerigg Stone circle on December 21, 2014 in Keswick, England. The circle dates back over 4,000 years to neolithic times and is a popular meeting place for people from all over Britain who come to celebrate both the winter and summer solstices with the beautiful Cumbrian fells as a backdrop. (Photo by Ian Forsyth/Getty Images)

Tree worship didn’t stop at the tree. Some areas still incorporate a ‘Yule Log’ into their celebrations, although in modern times a popular version is a cake in the shape of a log decorated with leaves. The Yule Log was often the largest log you could find, burned in the fireplace to protect from evil spirits through the longest night of the year. Orthodox Christian traditions still incorporate burning a Yule Log in some regions. The confectionary versions have been featured on famous cooking shows like the Pioneer Woman.

A Serbian woman arranges dried oak branches for sale, the Yule log symbol for the Orthodox Christmas eve, in Belgrade on January 5, 2011. The branches are carried into the homes and burned on Orthodox Christmas Day, which is celebrated according to the Julian calendar on January 7.AFP PHOTO / Andrej ISAKOVIC (Photo credit should read ANDREJ ISAKOVIC/AFP via Getty Images)
Storekeepers, members of the “La Ronde des Quartiers” association prepare the world longest christmas yule log, on November 28, 2008 in Bordeaux, southwestern France. The yule is 158,53 meters long. AFP PHOTO / PIERRE ANDRIEU (Photo credit should read PIERRE ANDRIEU/AFP via Getty Images)

A popular tradition that also stayed with Scandinavian influence is kissing under the mistletoe. In Celtic Druid traditions it also had a connection with fertility because it will grow even in the cold of winter. In Norse mythology the Goddess Frigg declared it as a symbol of love and said she would kiss anyone who walked underneath it after Loki kills her son Baldr with a spear tipped in a poison made from mistletoe. According to Historian Mark Forsyth the modern tradition began in England between 1720 and 1784. The practice became more common in the 1800’s when historians believe it was thought to be bad luck if you didn’t accept the kiss.

1882: Traditional holly berries and sprigs of mistletoe decorate a Victorian Christmas greetings card. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Holly was also believed to have the ability to increase fertility due to it’s vibrant green and red color in the winter. Romans also used holly to decorate during the Saturnalia festival. It was believed to protect the home and bring good luck. That tradition continued as Christians hung it on doors to protect from evil spirits during the Holy Days. It’s such a popular Christmas decoration it has inspired famous songs, such as Frank Sinatra’s “Mistletoe and Holly.”

The Holly Man, the winter guise of the Green Man, a character from pagan myths and folklore, arrives by boat to act in a free performance with The Bankside Mummers group (from the Lions part) near the Globe Theatre in central London on January 6, 2013, in celebration of Twelfth Night, marking the end of the twelve days of winter festivities. Twelfth Night celebrations in the traditional agricultural calendar mark a last chance to make merry before returning to the rigours of work on Plough Monday. AFP PHOTO / CARL COURT (Photo credit should read CARL COURT/AFP via Getty Images)
TENBURY WELLS, ENGLAND – JANUARY 04: Members of the Leominster Morris gather for a drink before they lead the crowd from the Hobson Brewery in Frith Common to the nearby apple orchard to take part in Oldfields Orchard Cider wassailing ceremony ahead of today’s Twelfth Night on January 4, 2017 near Tenbury Wells in Worcestershire, England. The annual tradition sees morris dancers and mummers gather before a procession to a local orchard to perform a ceremony that involves placing a cider-soaked piece of Christmas cake on the branches of an apple tree and sprinkling cider around its roots, before lighting torches, dancing and singing the Wassail Song as to ensure a good crop of cider apples for the year ahead. The tradition of wassailing, which differs from place to place in cider producing counties, has its roots in ancient pagan traditions and is held on various dates after Christmas as a plea to the spirits of the orchard to provide a good crop, is seeing something of a modern revival as cider makers across the West Country reintroduce the ritual of toasting their apple trees for good luck. In the UK, January 5th is generally observed as the last day of Christmas festivities as it is the eve of the Epiphany. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

Cider may date back to the Celts in Britain around 3,000 BCE. They would visit an orchard, sing to the trees, and drink from a communal wassail bowl to encourage a good harvest next year. It was a drink in Rome, Greece, and the Middle East, and a popular favorite in Norman culture. Some areas still practice this tradition today.

TENBURY WELLS, ENGLAND – JANUARY 04: Members of the Leominster Morris perform in the Oldfields Orchard Cider wassailing ceremony ahead of today’s Twelfth Night at Hobson Brewery in Frith Common on January 4, 2017 near Tenbury Wells in Worcestershire, England. The annual tradition sees morris dancers and mummers gather before a procession to a local orchard to perform a ceremony that involves placing a cider-soaked piece of Christmas cake on the branches of an apple tree and sprinkling cider around its roots, before lighting torches, dancing and singing the Wassail Song as to ensure a good crop of cider apples for the year ahead. The tradition of wassailing, which differs from place to place in cider producing counties, has its roots in ancient pagan traditions and is held on various dates after Christmas as a plea to the spirits of the orchard to provide a good crop, is seeing something of a modern revival as cider makers across the West Country reintroduce the ritual of toasting their apple trees for good luck. In the UK, January 5th is generally observed as the last day of Christmas festivities as it is the eve of the Epiphany. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

St. Lucia’s Day honoring the Christian martyr also incorporates the Norse solstice tradition of lighting bonfires to ward off spirits during the longest night.

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