Have you ever wondered what Christmas decorations like lighted trees and garland, logs, and mistletoe have to do with… well, Christmas? The truth is they don’t actually have anything to do with the Christian celebration of the birth of Jesus.
Most of our modern Christmas decorations have their roots in pagan celebrations of the winter solstice. These include the Roman festival of Saturnalia and the Norse and Celtic festivals of Yule, both of which occurred around the longest night of the year in late December.
In the northern hemisphere, where most of these traditions originate, the winter solstice is in December. In the southern hemisphere, December is the summer solstice and the winter solstice occurs in June.
The winter holidays were so popular that the early Christian church decided to co-opt them as a celebration of the birth of Jesus, (even though historians and astronomers agree that Jesus was likely actually born in March.)
Many pagan traditions were adapted or wholesale copied to the Christian holiday, to entice people to convert.
5 Witchy Christmas Decor Items & Traditions (& Their Origins)
Let’s explore the witchy connotations of your favorite holiday decorations!
Christmas Tree Tradition + The History Of Christmas Trees
The most recognizable symbol of Christmas is, of course, the Christmas tree.
The history of Christmas trees is pretty fascinating: the first Christmas tree in relatively modern times appeared in the 16th century in Germany and is sometimes even attributed to the Protestant reformer, Martin Luther.
They became popular throughout Europe and the United States when Queen Victoria and her family (i.e. the Royal family) had a decorated Christmas tree for the first time at Windsor Castle in the 19th century.
The tradition was probably introduced by the queen’s husband and consort, Prince Albert, who was from Germany.
It was common in many different pagan festivals stretching far back into human history, however, to decorate an evergreen winter solstice tree. But why is this such a pervasive tradition that so many different cultures have found meaningful?
The key is in the fact that it’s an evergreen tree. At the darkest depths of winter, when most of the earth is barren and the trees have all lost their green leaves, evergreens like pine, spruce, and fir trees stand guard as a reminder that the earth will grow and flourish again in the spring.
The sun’s light will return to full power and the days will get longer once more in the coming year.
By bringing real Christmas trees inside our homes and placing Christmas gifts underneath, we bring a little bit of that hope inside as well.
We decorate with evergreen boughs and garland for the same reason. You might be wondering if artificial Christmas trees are an acceptable pagan decoration as a substitute for a real evergreen.
Personally, I think it’s absolutely fine – we have a real evergreen tree in the living room and real garland on the stairs, but I like to have small, artificial trees in other rooms of the house!
Early Yule tree and Christmas tree decorations were mostly natural materials like pinecones, along with candles. Other traditional Christmas tree ornaments or Yule decorations might include orange slices, (to represent the sun), holly berries which are in season this time of year, and collected items like feathers.
My own witchy Christmas ornaments include a mix of star and moon ornaments, woodland creatures, and family heirlooms!
Many modern witches like to decorate their trees in theme with even more explicitly witchy ways, such as having a black Christmas tree.
Hanging lights up as winter solstice decorations may have evolved a lot since the invention of electric lights but the original purpose is the same as it was for our ancestors: to bring light to the darkest part of the year.
The weeks surrounding the winter solstice are the longest nights of the year.
Imagine what that must have been like for people in ancient times, especially in locations around the world that are very far north or south of the equator, where there would only be a few hours of daylight.
Those very long, cold, dark nights would have been terrifying, the most difficult days of the year. It’s no wonder we created so many festive events this time of year for gathering, eating and drinking delicious foods, and decorating our homes with lights!
Of course, for ancient pagans, decorating with lights exclusively meant candles and lanterns but we have so many options now.
Flameless candles, battery operated strings of lights, and bulbs of all shapes, sizes, and colors mean that you can light up the darkness at the solstice in whatever way you choose.
My dad is an electrician so I’m pretty picky about my Christmas tree lights and do believe there is a correct way to put lights on the tree… Pro tip: push the lights into the center of the tree and wrap the string around the branch!
Okay, so this one actually does have a connection to both pagan celebrations of Yule and the Christian story of the birth of Christ. In the Christmas story, the three wise men, also called magi, (another name for magician or sorcerer), follow a bright star to the location where Mary has just given birth to Jesus in a stable.
This bright star was likely either the Great Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, a conjunction between Venus and Jupiter, or a comet. We were lucky enough to experience a Great Conjunction in late December 2020, a rare event that only occurs once every 300+ years!
The star on top of the Christmas tree is used as a reference to this story of the Magi, but it’s also a symbol commonly found in pagan lore.
In the winter months, the stars and moon become crystal clear and bright in a way they don’t seem to be the rest of the year.
On those long, cold winter nights, our ancestors would have looked up at the stars for hours on end and observed their clarity and brilliance. So if you prefer, your star decoration can actually be a witchy tree topper too!
The Yule log is one of the more overtly pagan symbols of our modern Christmas. The log has two connotations: one as an actual log in the fireplace and another as a delicious, (and difficult-to-make), holiday dessert!
The Yule log was traditionally a large log kept burning in the fireplace for the duration of the twelve days of festivities or for the entire solstice night.
This was a practice done for good luck and, again, to celebrate the return of the sun after the winter solstice, when the days begin to grow longer again.
After the holiday, some traditions say that the ashes of the Yule log would be spread in the garden to fertilize the next season’s crop. Other traditions say that a piece of the log would be saved to be added to next year’s solstice bonfire or hearth fire.
Many people still burn a Yule log in the fireplace, but the more common version of the tradition has evolved into a yummy dessert.
A “Yule log” cake, also called a Buche de Noel, is a Swiss roll – a tender chocolate sponge cake, filled with whipped frosting, that is rolled up into a log! It’s so difficult to make because rolling the cake without cracking is very tricky, as any Great British Baking Show aficionado can tell you.
The Yule log cake is then decorated like a real log with bark, wood grain, and often meringue mushrooms. Sometimes you can also find mini Yule logs pre-made in stores and bakeries. Delicious and beautiful!
Another odd Christmas tradition that is definitely not of Christian origin is that of kissing under mistletoe.
You’ll find the tradition in songs and movies of all kinds; maybe you’ve even smooched under some mistletoe yourself but wondered exactly why.
Mistletoe was considered sacred to the ancient Celtic druids and was also sacred to the Norse goddess, Frigga, the wife of Odin, Queen of the Gods, and goddess of marriage and fertility.
It is this connection to Frigga, in particular, that probably brings us the holiday tradition.
By kissing under the mistletoe, we call on the power of Frigga to support our most sacred relationships and make them fertile and abundant!
How to Make Your Traditions Even Witchier & Witchy Christmas Decor Ideas
As you’ve learned, even the most innocuous holiday decorations are actually witchy and pagan in origin, from decorating a tree to lighting a cozy fire or kissing under the mistletoe.
Pretty much the only “Christmas” decorations that are actually Christian in origin are the nativity and an angel tree topper!
If you really want to bring the witchy vibes to your holiday decor this year, though, I recommend leaning into the connections to nature.
Natural decorations like dried orange slice garlands, strings of popcorn and cranberries, and evergreen boughs will brighten your space for the holidays while staying connected to the earth.
Witchy home decor is surprisingly easy to pull off: I have friends who even hang crystals or tarot card ornaments (like these from Etsy) on their trees.
Plus, one of my besties made a killer Midwinter playlist that’s mostly pagan and wintry, non-Christian songs for us to listen to on Christmas eve (or throughout the whole season).
Even your Elf on the Shelf is actually kind of witchy. The concept of modern-day Christian Elf on the Shelf originated in the 1970’s from a book, but the origins of elves and Christmas go way back. Santa has them, and elves are very popular in Scandinavian culture. In fact, they used to be a sign of bad fortune if an elf came to visit you!
It doesn’t take much to make your winter holiday more witchy, just an understanding of the symbolism that underlies all of our traditional decorations to begin with.
Celebrating the winter solstice is about bringing light to the darkest part of the year and warming up the cold nights with yummy food, a good party, and a cozy fire.
The week between the solstice/Christmas and the new year is a time of warmth and generosity, when we gather together for warmth and good cheer, reminding one another that the sun will regain its strength, the light will return, and we have everything we truly need in one another!
Wish you and your loved ones a happy winter solstice! Let us know how you’ll be celebrating in the comments.