Contextually, and in keeping with the current popular interest in familial ancestry (extending, no less, to DNA exploration to uncover unknown ethnic origins) it might be timely to examine into the antecedents of our holidays and cultural observances.
As at the time of this writing, since the time of the calendar year is just prior to the Christmas season, we would select the history of that observance and as well, its related springtime holiday, Easter.
Winter festivities took place among many diverse ancient cultures for thousands of years prior to the time Christianity had its beginning. These festivals, as is the case with today’s religious and secular observances, derive from a cross-pollination of many features of the early Egyptian, early Roman, early Germanic, Viking and Druid cultures, all of which, apparently, worshipped the sun as a deity, in one way or another.
In our northern hemisphere, the shortest day (and therefore, ineluctably, the longest night) falls on December 21st-22nd. Many ancient peoples believed that the sun god was seriously ailing and in the throes of death at such time, as demonstrated by the increased darkness and the condition of nature.
The winter solstice observances and ritual celebrations were intended to cause the recuperation and restoration of the sun deity. At such time of the year, early Egyptians (and others) believed said observances would soon bring on the sun god’s return to strength and good health.
Early Romans also believed that at the time of the arrival of the winter solstice, their seasonal celebrations, including Saturnalia, would cause the return of good health or the “rebirth” of the sun god. Their proceedings would include stuffing their headgear with evergreen vegetation. The Vikings similarly believed that evergreen vegetation was the deity’s holy plants.
The apparently miraculous (or holy) phenomenon of the evergreen tree which remained green, and even flourished all year (including the “dead” season) was of the subject of great wonder and the object of many religious rituals. Today, of course, the Christmas tree is, by far, the most recognizable traditional symbol of the holiday.
The yule log tradition was a religious one, of traditionally pre-Christian Germanic culture, related to the anticipated return of the sun and the lengthening of the daytime; the latter called by them various names, one of which was “the Yule.” It was also a time of communal fires, feasting (on a Yule ham, among other things) singing, exchange of gifts and general celebration.
It is interesting to learn that the early American pilgrims sought to stamp out this “pagan” holiday with its popular celebrations. Oliver Cromwell called it a “heathen celebration of bushes and trees and other rituals” which he banned under criminal penalty. In the 19th Century, however, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts enacted a Statute, establishing December 25th as a legal and proper Christmas holiday.
It was believed that as a direct result of such ancient observances, when the time of the spring equinox arrived, the sun god (and nature) was caused to have their recovery; the world was then perceived as re-born and alive and fertile and the waterways melted and ran again. The bunny rabbit and the egg were revered as symbols of fertility and reproduction. The latter events clearly, it seems, unknowingly foretold the rites of the future holiday of Easter.
The ancient belief in the death of the sun god and nature and their subsequent rebirth may be seen to have a cogent relationship to modern belief systems and theology. However, it is not the purpose of this writing to, in way, comment or discourse upon past and present folkways and traditions, beyond the enlightened and learned recognition that societies successively evolve and grow organically, and in perennial fashion from their predecessors.