Christmas: Resonances in Ancient Britain


Christmas in Britain is taken for granted these days, but it wasn’t so in ancient days. For one thing, the date of the birth of Jesus wasn’t set until many years later, long after the events that make up the Christian New Testament took place. For another thing, the whole of the British Isles didn’t spring up as a Christian entity at the same time. That took time, many years, in fact, and the idea of celebrating Christmas spread over the Island slowly, on the heels of the religion itself. It is probably not a coincidence that the date is near that of the winter solstice, a powerful reason for celebrating among many ancient peoples.

Certain of the symbols that we now associate with the celebration of Christmas would be familiar to ancient Britons. Evergreen trees, for instance, which are to many people the very embodiment of the Christmas Tree, have decorated people’s residences as far back as ancient Egyptian times. The evergreen, which begins life anew after winter’s end, symbolizes life’s triumph over death, for both trees and people. For Christians, who emphasize the death and resurrection of Jesus, the evergreen tree is a powerful reinforcement of those beliefs.

The lights and decorations on Christmas trees are also evocative of ancient Roman times, as are the wreaths that many people put on their house doors and vehicle hood ornaments. The Romans would celebrate the winter solstice in a festival called Saturnalia, named after the god of agriculture. They would decorate trees and their homes with ornaments and candles in honor of the celebration. They would also exchange gifts with one another: Coins were given in hopes of prosperity; pastries were given in hopes of happiness; and lamps were given in hopes of lighting one’s path in the future. Wreaths were hung on home doors to celebrate victories. Also, a family would often associate itself with a certain kind of wreath and hang that wreath on its door as a means of differentiating itself from other families (sort of like a family calling card or a house number, things that ancient peoples didn’t have).

Even the Vikings can be found chipping in here with the idea that the evergreen tree meant the beginning of the end of winter (and the beginning of the end of the long darkness and chill that that entailed in Viking homelands).

That mistletoe and holly that seems to populate many homes every December? They’re signs of eternal life, and they date back to the Druids of ancient Britain and France, who also placed evergreen branches over their home doorways, to keep evil spirits away. Mistletoe was also a sign of renewed life in Viking traditions.