What is it about tinsel and twinkling lights that makes Christmas so romantic? I’ve been wondering what exactly drives my sudden swoon this time of year, is it the onslaught of diamond commercials? Or the endless holiday movies that promise acceptable (and expected) miracles to adults, with their perfectly timed declarations of devotion and unexpected reunions of kids and kin? Is it just a red bow on a sports car or the classic cuddly comfort of snowy white purity and “good” behavior? It was this nice and naughty line of thinking that led me to a fantasy of mistletoe and frosted glass when I stopped to ask myself, what is it about the holidays that gets my swans a singing for a clutch of my own? Interestingly, some beautiful Christmas traditions actually do have deep roots in fertility and celebrations of love, birth, and future promise. Without going near the oh-so-controversial territories of Christianity and commercialization, I snuck a better look at the loveable evergreen and that suggestive little bunch of berries and twigs that puts the snog in holiday eggnog.
Our obsession with the Christmas tree here in the US has really only been around since the early- mid-1800’s. It’s thought to have been popularized after British imagery made its way over from the palatial halls of King George III and his German wife Charlotte Mecklenburg- Strelitz who started the colonial fad based on the yuletide Germanic traditions of ugly sweaters and office parties, or at the very least the religious winter festivals that would later inspire them. The celebration of Christmas was nothing new, however, the idea of decorating a tree inside the home had been fairly constrained to Northern European cultures until that point. According to some scholars, the role of trees in winter solstice, including the decoration as well as ritualized 12 day burning of massive logs (yule logs), were likely adopted into the Christianization of the winter holidays early on (on the twelfth day of Christmas my true love gave to me…). The yule log, or yule tree, was hailed as crucial to the pagan Anglo-saxon fertility ceremony celebrated by pre-Christian seasons greeters on the Modranicht (mother’s night), or 24th of December, and this hallowing of natural effigies carried through into our modern idea of holiday spirit, shifting and shimmering along the way. It’s perhaps the obvious phallic nature of the tree (or pole, pending your translation) that may have inspired some to suspect that spherical ornaments once symbolized testicles, with complimentary circular wreaths as their welcoming female counterparts. While I cannot attest to the truth of these academic assumptions I can say that I’ll be giggling like a preteen the next time I carry my tree home and slip it out of its protective plastic wrapper.
Odin aside, fecund tree-felling may go back as far back as the bodacious BCE goddess Ashera. Worshiped throughout Egypt and the Middle East as a “mother goddess,” she was honored through the decoration of private hardwoods as a celebration of union and healthy bounty. So it would seem that the gathering of packages and precious gifts around a comforting conifer has long been a time for family planning and wishful thinking.
And what of those dangling little dares we string up and stand beneath? Mistletoe has an equally impressive pedigree and a similar tale of transmission through culture contact. Roman mythology offers the first wink to those potentially poisonous little berries, tying them to ideas of marriage, protection and mirth that are most fully recognized in the winter celebration of Saturnalia, Saturn’s seed and sow party in mid-late December. It was believed that those who kissed beneath mistletoe would be blessed in marriage and childbirth (thanks to the pantheon gossip around the goddess Frigga and her modest icebreaking gift to the mortals). Because nothing says lasting love like obligatory hookups and epic parties, the tradition was adopted and swapped through cultural word of mouth until, pregnant with promise, it made its way into the open arms of pop culture.
So whether it’s the rich fertile layers and suggestive traditions that get me pining for Mr. Claus, or just the innocent magic of good food, cold nights and belting out five golden rings, it’s clear that immaculate conception isn’t the only nod to fertility we’re practicing. I guess we all might as well just enjoy, after all ‘tis the season for new beginnings and hopefully getting what you really want.