The Holly and the Ivy


Ah yes, it’s that wonderful time of the year, when pagans nod and smile and sometimes can’t help but grit our teeth a bit as we are bombarded by the trappings and symbols of other religions.

            Or are we?

            One needn’t dig very deep to find the pagan roots of Christmas. Actually, one needn’t look any further than its most visible symbols. The significance of  mistletoe, holly and ivy are of druid origin. December 25 was once known as Brumalia, the ancient Greek solstice festival. Gift exchange began with the Romans, who celebrated the feast of Saturnalia in mid-December. A bit later, and a bit further north, we find the Scandinavians drinking around Yule logs. (I suspect they did the drinking around the fire thing all year long, but whatever.)

            The winter solstice, regardless of which religion’s trappings one dresses it up in, is universal and timeless. It’s a marker of where we are in our lives, and, on a celestial scale, where we are in orbit. We may think of these things in a modern way, in terms of things to buy and things to decorate and things to bake, but below the sales and the silly heartwarming movies and the shiny lights lie more serious reminders that there are deeper rhythms in our lives. Universal rhythms.

            Winter solstice is, in simplest terms, the longest night of year. It is able to be the longest night of the year because of a long list of very, very, very complicated reasons: the way the earth tilts on its axis, the angle at which we face the sun, the speed at which we travel along on our orbit in space. Our ancestors, who were, as a whole, much more tied to the natural cycles of the earth than we are, celebrated the year’s longest night in a variety of ways, which have somehow led us to a fat guy in a red suit stuffing himself down a chimney, a reindeer with a glowing nose, shopping mall chaos, and fruitcake, which I think should be classified as a weapon.

            The holidays are a time to reflect on who we are and who we’ve been, where we’ve gone and where we’re going, and to reconnect with the things and people that matter. As much as I love the more secular aspects of the holidays, the parties and the food, the songs and the smells and the lights, more and more I find myself just wanting to inhale the smell of fresh pine and an icy wind, and to drink some spiced wine while watching a log crackling in a fireplace. Over the last couple years, I’ve realized there are ways to honor my pagan leanings without scaring the neighbors too badly. White candles, mistletoe, hot cider, the scent of pine, traditional foods, Yule logs, medieval carols … these things all symbolize something sacred. Something celestial. Something larger than we are.
            Yuletide greetings to all.