Christmas rituals and symbols: what they mean and why they are so important

No other month is as ritualistic as December: every year, the Christmas season begins with baking cookies, buying presents and hanging fairy lights. Many people enjoy these rituals, but only a few know where they come from, what they are all about and why symbols are so important to us.

Rituals and symbols at Christmas: What's behind them?

Why do we celebrate Christmas?

Hardly anyone escapes the Christmas season, it looks at us in almost every shop window. Celebrating Christmas is just part of the fun: The lights, the Christmas decorations and the festive meal with the family create a special mood that is passed down from generation to generation. Christmas is ancient – some of its customs have their roots in pagan rituals.

End of December is not only Christmas, but also the Yule and the winter solstice. Very slowly it is getting lighter again. Life returns with the light, because without the warming rays of the sun, the earth remains bare. This was reason enough for the Germanic tribes to hold a festival every year at the winter solstice. It wasn’t until the eighth century that the 25. December declared a Christian holiday as Jesus’ birthday. Since then, Christians have celebrated that God came to earth in the form of Jesus to redeem mankind. Germanic or Christian: Christmas is a festival of hope, a festival of gratitude.

Cookies& Gifts: an expression of joy

Even in pre-Christian times, big celebrations were a welcome occasion to indulge in delicious baked goods. Later, it was probably the medieval monasteries that made cookie baking acceptable for Christians as well. With exquisite baked goods in honor of Christ, they wanted to make the Christmas season even more beautiful. This custom continues to this day: In many families, gingerbread, Christstollen or butter cookies are indispensable at Christmas.

Christmas gifts have a similar background, although this custom is much younger. Originally, St. Nicholas brought gifts to well-behaved children on the 6th of December. December, until Martin Luther thought that Christ should be the center of attention and that the gifts should therefore be distributed on his birthday. They were an expression of the joy people felt because the birth of Jesus gave them hope.

Christmas rituals and symbols: What's behind them?

Rituals are important for living together

Rituals create order. They offer structure in ever-changing times and a support that young and old can rely on. Rituals are especially important for children, because recurring routines give them security. A meta-analysis by the University of Illinois found that children with alcohol-dependent parents were less likely to reach for the bottle in adulthood if their daily lives were marked by rituals such as shared dinners.

The rituals of the Christmas season symbolize a turning point in the cycle of the year: they help us to break out of everyday life and to let the magical and the unknown into our lives. The glow of peace and harmony that many people associate with Christmas makes the gray everyday problems fade into the background. Today, Christmas is above all a celebration of contemplation and family, which strengthens cohesion and renews ties that have grown over the years.

Old rituals in a new light

In many families, Christmas Eve is celebrated in the same way every year: Church, feasting, caroling and giving presents are all part of the celebration as a matter of course. The family gathers under the Christmas tree, candles burn, quiet Christmas music plays in the background. Although the Christmas tree is a fairly modern phenomenon, which only found its way into German living rooms around 1700, green fir branches already decorated people’s homes in pre-Christian times, as they were supposed to keep away all evil.

Those who celebrate Christmas today are usually unaware that they are following ancient traditions whose origins have disappeared into the darkness of history. But the spirit of Christmas, the desire for peaceful coexistence, has been preserved over the centuries and lives on to this day.

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