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12 Cool Holiday Traditions That Aren't About God or Shopping

Finding it a little tough to feel warm and chirpy about the birth of the baby Jesus?

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After an autumn of Bible-based gay bashing, and Religious Right candidates with “rape Tourette’s,” and End Times aficionados gunning for Armageddon rather than peace in the Middle East, some nontheists may be finding it a little tough to feel warm and chirpy about the birth of the baby Jesus.  Fortunately the need to celebrate life and light at the darkest time of the year is something that long predates Christianity, and many of the yummy and playful customs of the season are rooted in cultures that have merged and morphed and been shared freely for millennia. Here are twelve traditions with ancient roots. 

1. Celebrating the End of December. 

All across the Northern Hemisphere our ancestors marked the winter  solstice with festivals that acknowledge the cycle of life: death and birth, darkness and light. For cold, lean people it may have seemed like the sun might never reappear. Yet, a few days after solstice the days began to visibly lengthen, promising another spring. Persephone would return from Hades; King Winter would be beaten!  Pagan Scandinavia celebrated Yule, the great turning of the wheel of life. The Roman Pope Julius 1 chose December 25 to honor the birthday of Jesus because it already hosted two related festivals of birth:  natalis solis invicti (“birth of the unconquered sun”), and the birthday of Mithras, the “Sun of Righteousness.”  Today, mid-winter celebrations in the month of December include the Buddhist Bodhi Day (December 8); Hannukah (December 8); Solstice itself, which has  many names; Hindu Pancha Ganapati (December 21-25);  Festivus (December 23), Kwanzaa (December 26-January 1), New Years Eve, and of course,  Hogmanay.

2. Candles & Lights 

Since ancient times, man-made lights have symbolized the light of the sun and the promise of brighter days to come. We are  toldthat pagan Romans decorated living trees with fragments of metal and images of the fertility god Bacchus. Twelve candles on a tree honored the sun god. The  writings of one early Church father, Tertullian, discuss early Christians who imitated their neighbors by decorating their homes with candles and laurel at the turn of the year. In the North of Europe, Germanic people honored Woden by tying candles to evergreen branches, along with fruit. The Jewish festival of  Hanukkah, a time of remembering, is centered on the menorah and is also called the Festival of Lights. 

3. Trees
For many Pagan peoples of Europe, evergreen trees were symbols of enduring life. Their branches had the power to fend off evil spirits. Druids held ceremonies while gathered around sacred trees. Cutting entire trees and bringing them indoors may have been too destructive, but we know that Pagans brought in evergreen boughs. Because trees are so strongly associated with Pagan celebrations some Christians have opposed them being a part of Christmas festivities. The first record of a decorated Christmas tree dates to 1521, in Germany. At the time, a prominent Lutheran minister protested: "Better that they should look to the true tree of life, Christ." But the appeal of evergreen branches indoors is so universal that it has since been adopted through much of Christianity and into some homes for the celebration of the Jewish Hanukkah.

4. Wreaths 
In Scandinavia, the  traditional Yule wreathsymbolized the “Wheel of the Year,” which was also honored around the calendar with festivals marking winter and summer solstice and each equinoxes. Some ancient groups  believed that the great wheel stopped turning at the point of the winter solstice and so it was taboo to turn a butter churn or wheel on the shortest day of the year. For  Germanic people, wreaths decorated with small candles encouraged the return of spring: the circle of the wreath representing the seasons, and the candles representing warmth from the sun. When made of holly and ivy, a wreath was thought to provide protection to any household where it hung on the door.

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