There is a special kind of magic at Christmas.
I don’t mean the cliché “Santa-comes-down-the-chimney” magic or the “flying-reindeer” magic or the “delivering-presents-all-over-the-world-in-one-night” kind of magic. That’s little children magic.
No, I’m talking about the old magic. The dark magic. I’m talking pagan magic. Norse and Danish magic.
That many Christmas traditions come from pagan rituals and religion should come as no shock to anyone. But why did those pagan rituals manifest in the first place?
Take the traditional Christmas tree. To the nature worshiping pagans of the Netherlands and the Germanic countryside, the dark and haunting evergreen trees, so plentiful in the forests of northern Europe, help a special kind of magic for the pagan people.
Trees were worshiped in pagan tradition and in summer the spirit of the forest, the “Green Man” shared his bounty of life with all peoples. But when the winter came, the Green Man slept along with all of the other sprites and dryads of the summer forest. The land was barren and bleak and the only spirits that traveled the land were evil ones.
The only trees that could withstand those evil influences, who were protected against the influence of the cold and chilly winter time, were the evergreens.
To the pagan people that was strong magic, indeed. So is it any wonder that they would try to use that magic to ward off the evil spirits of winter? Is it any wonder that they would take the branches of fir and pine and festoon their dwellings with them, trying to imbue their homes with the same kind of magic that kept them green?
Is it surprising that families would gather in these hard times? Wandering far afield was an activity for summer. Winter was the time to gather together for warmth, to share meager supplies and to keep each other safe from the cold spirits that stalked the land.
Pagan Germanic peoples would hang wreaths and bushels of evergreens over their doors and windows, believing their spirit was enough to ward off winter evils. In many cases evergreen decor were brought indoors where their scent could freshen the dark, medieval homes of otherwise stagnant straw and thresh. The needles and cones would even be burned as a form of incense; its smoke and fragrance filling the home with the protective spirit-magic of the evergreen.
Amongst the Vikings this was the time of sacrifices to the god Jul. The Feast of Jul, or “Yule” lasted twelve days. A great tree was chopped down, its branches were stripped and strewn about the hall, the trunk of the tree, the Yule log, was set into a great fire where it burned all twelve days of the Yuletide feast keeping those around it warm and safe from predators.
So, you say, this is all very interesting, but what does it have to do with art?
Well, let’s fast forward from the dark ages to Victorian times. In northern Europe the practices of the old pagans were held onto. Thoroughly Christianized as these countries were, and celebrating now the birth of the god Jesus, rather than Jul, they nevertheless kept the traditions of bringing branches, wreaths, holly and even small trees inside their houses. The Yule log still burned in the fire and still there was feasting and gathering together and making merry.
Prince Albert, the husband of England’s beloved Queen Victoria, love that time of year and he had many fond memories of he and his brothers celebrating in the traditional ways. The English didn’t do Christmas quite like that (they had even canceled Christmas for three years back in the 17th century — part of a Puritan general moratorium on happiness or something) but Albert wanted to bring something of the old country to his new life in England and so he brought the tradition of the Christmas tree from Germany to England.
And the art? Well, the London Illustrated News published a woodcarving print of the young royal family at Christmas time with a decadently decorated Christmas tree in the December of 1848. With the widespread distribution of the illustration, within two years every home in England had an evergreen Christmas tree in their home.
How’s that for powerful magic? One single image… a woodcut, no less… inspires and changes an entire society practically overnight.
Well, it was an idea ripe for the time. Thanks to the Victorian era’s Industrial Revolution, a significant concentration of the nation’s newly wealthy were living in cities. With this move away from country homes and villas, successful and independently wealthy alike quickly picked up where Prince Albert left off. In an attempt to recapture a quaint and warm image of the country side and the country homes they had left behind, Victorians took to the Christmas trees with a passion.
And, in a way, it was a kind of magic in itself. Just as the early pagans tried to stave off evil spirits with the evergreens, so to did the Victorians try to rekindle the warmth and happiness of their rural past. Bringing a bit of the country into your home in the city is a kind of ritual magic. Although we may not do it consciously, we are invoking the spirits of good fortune, entreating them to come and bless us, everyone.
Whether you celebrate the season or not — whether you are Christian, Jew, Muslim, Pagan, or Atheist — I hope you will not take it amiss that I wish you all a little bit of magic in your homes at this time and throughout the coming year. May evil spirits give your dwelling a wide berth, and may your homes be blessed with spirits of good cheer and merriment… be those spirits magical or merely imbibed.
Above all I wish you peace.