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Christmas! 'In The Bleak Midwinter'? Just Imagine!

Updated on September 13, 2015

Icicles - A Northern Winter


History and Origins of Some Christmas Traditions?

Origins of some Christmas Traditions?

What are the origins of Christmas?
What are we celebrating?

The story of a sacred baby in a manger in the Middle East?
~ Maybe!
But when would that baby have been born?
25th December?
(Apparently, just as an aside, expected winter temperatures in Bethlehem, based on averages, could range from 9° C to18° C.)

So the story of the baby in the manger may be considered by some to be 'the true meaning of Christmas' ~ as in 'Christ's Mass ~ but it is not the origin of the midwinter celebrations, which have come to be known as Christmas.

So what are the origins of Christmas, as celebrated 'in the bleak midwinter'?
What can we say about Midwinter?
Midwinter is the time of the Winter Solstice.
Midwinter is the time of the celebrations known as 'Yule' and 'Saturnalia'.

Northern Europe

The Christmas that most of us will have in our imaginations is one set in Northern Europe, (though, as a result of many Christmas films, it has been transposed to North America now, as well).

Midwinter Associations

What is associated with midwinter celebrations?
~ Chestnuts roasting on an open fire?
~ Cards and carols and crackers?
~ Parties with family and friends?
~ Holly, mistletoe, Christmas trees?
~ Candles and fairy lights?
~ Cooking, cake, puddings, food and feasting?
~ Paper chains and tinsel?
~ Santa Claus or Father Christmas and reindeer?
~ Red and green, gold and silver?
~ Church bells and snow?
~ Christmas stories ~ including ghost stories!

The Holly ......

December 2010. Copyright Tricia Mason
December 2010. Copyright Tricia Mason

Carol: 'The Holly and the Ivy'

'The Holly and the Ivy' is a traditional English carol, which begins:

'The holly and the ivy, when they are both full grown,
Of all the trees that are in the wood, the holly bears the crown.

Oh, the rising of the sun and the running of the deer,
The playing of the merry organ, sweet singing in the choir.'

A similar song is the nineteenth century Cornish 'Sans Day Carol', which begins

'Now the holly bears a berry as white as the milk,
And Mary bore Jesus, who was wrapped up in silk:

And Mary bore Jesus Christ our Saviour for to be,
And the first tree in the greenwood, it was the holly.
Holly! Holly!
And the first tree in the greenwood, it was the holly!'

And the Ivy


'The Holly and The Ivy'

'The Holly and The Ivy' is a traditional Christmas carol, sung in churches throughout the land during Christmas tide, but, if one looks closely at the words, one can recognise something that looks very much like a hymn to the solstice.

Holly may currently be associated with Christmas, and both holly and ivy have been used to decorate churches for many years, but both of these plants were pagan fertility symbols before they were adopted by Christianity, and, in days long gone by, holly was held in high regard by Druids ~ and also by Romans celebrating Saturnalia. Evergreens like 'the holly and the ivy' have long been long linked with pagan beliefs.

And what about the blatant allusion to the 'rising of the sun'?
This reminds us more of Sol, and the sunrise at the solstice, than of the new-born son of God on the day of Christ's Mass.

Can you imagine?

Just imagine what it was like, in Northern Europe, during winter, before we had modern comforts.

According to the BBC website, the winter solstice 'is the shortest day of the year in northern latitudes, with London seeing only 7 hours and 50 minutes of daylight on 21st December 2005. .
This means that on 21st December 2005 London experienced 16 hours and 10 minutes without daylight. Places further North would have had to cope with even more darkness.

Often winter brings dark, dull weather, with mist or heavy cloud. Sometimes, on days like this, it is as if the sun doesn't rise at all.

Yet, on other winter days, the sky may be a brilliant cloudless blue and the air appears to be filled with liquid sunshine, making the snow and frost sparkle all around.

Now put yourself back in time ~ to the days when a thickly forested Northern Europe was experiencing sub zero temperatures and many, many hours of darkness per day ~ when there was no central heating, no electric (or even gas) lighting, when homes were made of twigs and leaves, wattle and daub, when there were no shops and supermarkets and food might be scarce, when an open fire could mean the difference between life and death. It must have been extremely frightening at times.

Life expectation probably wasn't very long. After all, babies and young children would have been very vulnerable to the cold and to wild animals, etc. Mothers must have died in childbirth. Fathers may have died in battles with other tribes, or while hunting wild animals.

This was life for generations of ancient European peoples, and, even after people and villages came under the jurisdiction of various overlords, who might control hunting, etc, life did not change that much. People were still very vulnerable and superstitious, and they still had to endure long, hard, cold, dark, winters.

This would have been a time of fear of the supernatural, even in summer, but, with the extra hours of darkness, winter could have been especially frightening.

The unknown and the unexplained bring many fears. Strange sounds in the forest; eclipses of the sun ~ whatever it was, we can assume that these people could only guess at the explanation and must have lived in both hope and fear.

Can you put yourself in the place of people, just like you, but who lived in centuries long gone?

December 2010. Copyright Tricia Mason
December 2010. Copyright Tricia Mason

An idea of life back then?

Have you experienced a power cut in winter?
Have you broken down in your car, in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of winter?
Have you experienced a long, dark winter night, with no electricity?

If so, then you may have some idea of life back then.

Christmas History and Traditions

Any hope amongst the fears?

The long dark days would have been dangerous and frightening.

What would have given them hope?

The evergreens would have been a promise that all was not dead and withered, and the edible berries would provided much-needed nutrients ~ as well as brightening up the dark months!

Nuts from the deciduous trees would have served the same purpose ~ carrying new life and providing sustenance.

Fire would have been vital ~ warding off beasts, keeping them warm, melting ice and snow for drinking water, useful for cooking food.

Animals of the woods, which gave them food. A kill would mean a communal feast.

Each other ~ humans are generally social creatures. There was safety and reassurance in numbers ~ and people provided entertainment during those long winter nights, whether it was telling tales, singing songs or making babies!

The day when things began to change, when the hours of light started to outnumber the hours of darkness, would have been a very special one ~ with its promise of more light, warmth and life ~ that is the winter solstice.

It is not surprising that these are still important parts of out Christmas / Midwinter celebrations.

Hawthorn Berries.  December 2010. Copyright Tricia Mason
Hawthorn Berries. December 2010. Copyright Tricia Mason

Yule, Saturnalia, Solstice

The Christian Christmas took over from pagan celebrations ~ Roman Saturnalia and Anglo-Saxon Yule, for example. But celebration of the Winter Solstice goes back way beyond Anglo Saxon, or even Roman, times. Ancient structures indicate that the winter solstice was revered and celebrated in prehistoric times.

At Christmas, we may be following customs that our ancestors began thousands of years ago.


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    • Trish_M profile image

      Tricia Mason 7 years ago from The English Midlands

      They sure did, Peggy :)

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 7 years ago from Houston, Texas

      Interesting view of how life would have been like in past centuries long before most modern conveniences that we take for granted. Our predecessors had much to endure!

    • Trish_M profile image

      Tricia Mason 7 years ago from The English Midlands

      Sometimes I love this time of year ~ sometimes I don't. The bad weather can be dangerous, which is certainly a worry, but, apart from that, I rather like the snow :)

    • profile image

      diogenes 7 years ago

      Interesting slant on Chrissie and a stark reminder of what we face this week in the UK. I am of the humbug persuation myself and will be glad when it - along with the winter -will be over....Bob