For millennia, all across the northern hemisphere, human beings have huddled in the cold and dark as the winds picked up, snow fell, and the days grew ever shorter. Hunting, gathering, farming done, they gathered together, kept up the fires, visited, told stories, sang, and feasted as much as they could.
All across Europe, the Yule log, the largest and straightest to be found, gave warmth through the longest night of the winter. From Rome to Ireland, holly wreaths were worn at solstice celebrations. In Egypt, palm trees brought indoors symbolized resurrection; from Rome to the far northern reaches of Norway, evergreen branches were brought in and decorated, celebrating life in the dead of winter. In Germany in the 17th century, people started bringing in trees on December 24, the Feast of Adam and Eve, to represent the Tree of Paradise.
In northern Germany and Scandinavia, the Julebok is everywhere. Originally it symbolized the goats that drew Thor’s chariot, which he sacrificed to feed his guests and resurrected the next day. Made of the straw left from the harvest, it was burned at Yule.
Mistletoe is the ancient Norse plant of peace. The death of Baldur, the god of vegetation, by a spear of mistletoe wood, brought winter upon the world. Baldur was resurrected, and his mother Frigga declared that it would be a plant of love, not death. Enemies meeting by chance in the woods beneath mistletoe had to declare a truce, and people kissed beneath the mistletoe to celebrate life and Baldur’s resurrection.
The new year begins in late fall in India, with Diwali, the Festival of Lights, a celebration of the triumph of good over evil. The house is cleaned, family gathers, and dozens of small oil lamps burn all night. Jews light Hanukkah candles, to commemorate the rededication of the Temple, for eight days starting on a day in the dead of winter, chosen because it was the day when Nehemiah had miraculously rekindled the altar fire from remnants of coals hidden generations before, when the Jews were taken into their Babylonian captivity. At the very end of winter, just before the spring equinox, Iranians of all religions prepare for the New Year with a Festival of Lights, jumping over bonfires and crying “Give me your beautiful red colour and take back my sickly pallor.”
We gather in the cold and the dark with our friends and family, decking our halls with evergreens and lights. We tell each other stories of love, hope, rebirth, and the return of warmth and light. We sing and feast as much as we can. Jesus’ birth is part of one of the old, old stories of death, sorrow, love, and rebirth.
Let all of us say to each other many greetings and not begrudge one another the warmth of love in the dark and cold.