I walked around town today looking for those signs of life in Winter that inspired our ancestors' Solstice celebrations, and which we still celebrate today. I found plenty of inspiration!
Holly and Ivy were both associated with the Winter Solstice in European pre-Christian cultures. Because they remain green throughout the Winter they were associated with fertility, Holly representing the male side of the equation and Ivy representing the female. The Christmas carol "The Holly and the Ivy" harks back to that time, when the men and women would sing back and forth to each other, the men singing praises of the Holly and the women responding with praises of Ivy. This continued even into Christian times in various iterations of "The Holly and the Ivy", with the men singing the Holly verses and the women singing the Ivy ones.
Evergreen conifers - Firs, Pines, Spruces, Cedars, Junipers, etc. - were natural centerpieces for solstice celebrations. The use of evergreen trees, wreaths, and garlands to symbolize eternal life was a custom of the ancient Egyptians, Chinese, and Hebrews. Tree worship was common among the pagan Europeans and survived their conversion to Christianity in the customs of decorating the house and barn with evergreens at the New Year to scare away the devil and of setting up a tree for the birds during Christmastime. The symbolism of the evergreen tree was especially marked among the Germanic tribes, and it was in Germany that the custom of setting up a tree for the birds for Yule (the old Germanic solstice season) developed into the Christmas tree. The German carol "O Tannenbaum", translated into English as "O Christmas Tree" (the actual translation is "O Fir Tree") doesn't mention Jesus' birth or Christmas at all, but rather praises the Fir for its constancy, for remaining green and strong all year long. These are ancient traditions carried over into the modern Christmas celebration.
Ah, I do love Winter celebrations!
Photos & text © 2012 by A. Roy Hilbinger