You know, sometimes we do things without really thinking about why we do them. They have become tradition. Or how we’ve always done it. Or how we want to do it because we love it. The season of winter, with all of its sacred celebrations, is one of those times that is filled with traditions, rituals, and symbols that return year after year. However, with all of the hustle and bustle, or simply without giving it any thought and just doing what we always do, we may forget to remember what all of the ancient symbols, traditions, and rituals of the season really mean.
Now, I love traditions + rituals. And symbolism, oh how I love symbolism and myth and legend and ancient ways. Especially at this time of the year. But, traditions + rituals can also begin to feel empty, if we don’t really stop and think about what or why we do what we do. It’s so easy to let the winter season come and go each year, celebrate the things we celebrate, and not even give a second thought about what all of the traditions, rituals, and symbols of the season mean. And, if we skip over the meaning behind all that we do, then we miss the deepest, most hopeful part of the season.
But, if we practice our traditions + rituals with a sense of mindful awareness, if we honor the histories behind celebrations of the season, then all of the ancient symbols will give a deeper meaning to our present day holiday.
So, I’d like to share a short little guide to some of the most common ancient symbols of the winter season. And, amazingly, these symbols seem to be timeless and universal, stretching across countries, religions, and history. No matter how you celebrate during the winter season, these symbols are most likely found in your own traditions and rituals in one way or another.
And, isn’t that beautiful? Isn’t that just what we need? Symbols, traditions, and rituals that unite us? Like a deep, flowing, universal river of truth.
The evergreen tree
In the cold + dark of winter, we are in desperate need of hope. But, I dare say that the ancient Celtic + Nordic folk of the north needed it more than we could possible imagine today. It’s no wonder, then, that since everything around them seemed dead, bare, empty, and hopeless, the evergreen tree, standing tall + strong + green became a symbol of deep hope. A symbol that ancient people relied on to provide them something to hold onto in the hopeless, never-ending dark that surrounded them. Bringing light + color + fragrance into their homes.
Tradition has it that ancient pagans used evergreens to celebrate the coming return of light. They brought them into their homes to honor + revere them. as sacred, holy images of the truth of the cycle of the season and eternal life. The evergreen, like holly + mistletoe, were thought to have magical powers, guarding homes against the dark spirits of winter + honoring the gods + goddesses of nature. Of course, the evergreen has special magic because it stayed green all winter long. They were seen as sacred and magickal plants because they did not appear to die during the winter. And they have been used all over the world as symbols of immortality, life, and resilience. Symbolizing nature, family, and hope – those things that are most important to us.
Trees, in their own right, are beautiful symbols of the cycle of life + the rhythm of nature. They reveal the secrets of the mystery of growth from a seed to a strong, sturdy, old tree. They show us the meaning of being grounded + rooted, even as storms + winds come and go. And they remind us the importance of release, surrender, and letting go so that we can be born anew.
But, it’s hard to wait in the dark for that rebirth. It’s hard to believe when it all feels so cold, so empty, and so dark. We do not want to follow the rhythm of nature down into the dark, bare, cold winter. It literally is hard to hold on + to trust when winter comes. There are days that it feels like it will never be light again. And it’s mind-blowing to even try to imagine that summer exists – and that it will actually return.
So, the evergreen offers us the medicine that we so desperately need right now. This is one time that we do not have to imagine anything. Nature literally offers us the antidote to our dark winter blues. And, even though we don’t think much of warding off malevolent spirits with our trees + wreaths of green, in some ways we still carry forward the traditions of our ancestors. To soak up the medicine of the evergreen, all we need to do is be a bit more mindful of these ancient ways. And allow ourselves a few moments to reflect + connect with the meanings of the tree that stays green all winter long.
This is the season of waiting. And it is difficult. But, the beauty of the eternal evergreen tree, keeping her dark green, earthy color all year long, year after year, is present + a part of our winter holiday celebrations to give us the medicine we need to carry on. To not give up. To keep believing + trusting.
Many different cultures, religions, and folk have honored the sacred symbolism of the reindeer years. Thousands of years, actually. And from all that I have explored, in addition to my own feelings + experiences, deer emerge as magical, strong, ancient creatures with much to offer us.
Legend in cold, northern, indigenous cultures regard the reindeer as the keeper of the sun. Sitting in between the majestic horns of the female deer, the sun rests during the winter months. Old Mother reindeer is seen as the bearer of light. Flying through the dark winter sky with the life-giving light of the sun. Hence, she is honored + revered by the peoples of the north, who followed her path, her journey, and her light. She has been spiritual symbol of regeneration, life, and rebirth – all themes of midwinter + the winter solstice.
Very appropriate for this time of year, I think. As the sun has been hidden from us, but returns with the winter solstice, just as the reindeer swirl around + fly about our holiday celebrations. I’m certain these old legends are exactly why reindeer are important characters in our holiday stories. I mean, think Rudolph. He saved the day because he literally (his nose) was the bearer of light in a snowstorm.
But, the Celtic reverence of the deer is the one that speaks deepest to my soul. in Celtic mythology, deer are mystical animals that can move between worlds. But, often they are seen as gatekeepers standing at the entrance of a threshold. Waiting to greet others + usher them into a new realm, another space. Serving as guides, helping to initiate one on a new journey.
Also, again, the antlers of the deer are seen as sacred symbols of life and light. Symbolizing the life-death-life cycle, since they, too, are grown + shed + regrown year after year. Once again, another sign of the continuous cycle of life and the return of life + light in the middle of the dark.
It’s these two myths, of the gatekeeper/guide and the sacredness of the antlers that seem to be the medicine that my soul craves this season. The beautiful antlers of the reindeer are simply a powerful reminder of the cycle of life. That, even though it is so dark, the sun will return to us when we reach the winter solstice in just a couple of weeks. The deer symbolizes that return. So, even though it is the darkest of the dark right now, the medicine of the deer provides hope.
But, even more important, for this week, for me, is the reindeer as a guide + a gatekeeper. The end of the year is approaching. A new threshold is soon to be crossed. And this is the perfect time to prepare for that crossing. To use the long dark nights to reflect + remember. To restore + reset. And to cast a vision to begin manifest once the new year, and a new journey, begins.
The mystical deer comes quietly + silently close to us. And just stands there. Calm, stoic, strong, stable. She looks at us, as deer do, cocking her head. Locking eyes with us. And just is. She just stands there. As if to say that she is present. There is nothing more to do. Nothing more we need. She’s a protector + a guide. On the edge of the forest, on the edge of a new path for us. Giving us strength just be her presence. Giving us courage + initiating our curiosity to follow behind… off into the deep, dark woods. Off into the deep, dark intuitive + wise spaces of our own soul.
Luckily, the quiet, strong, mystical deer is close by. Carrying the light in her antlers. Standing at the threshold. Bringing light, reminding us of the cycle of life, and guiding us deeper into our souls + onward onto a new path that is meant just for us. Guiding us from the darkness of the old year to bring light + life to the new.
And now, for a few other symbols of the season. All important in their own right, but maybe just a little bit of a smaller role in our holiday traditions and rituals. Still, though, with deep meanings that are worth remembering every year.
Lighting a candle is a common tradition and ritual for many homes from all through history. Placed in windows, it is a symbol of coming home, or welcoming one home. It is a sign of holding vigil. Much like the candles in the advent wreath, counting down the Sundays until Christmas. But, mostly, it is a symbol of the warmth and light found in our homes, the place where we find ourselves most during the winter season. Of course, the candle is also a reminder of the light that shines in the darkness, reminding us again, that the darkness will not win. That the light will return and we will bask outside under the sun once again.
Ancient druids believed the mistletoe, another plant that lives through the winter, to be a magical healer and protector. They hung them in their homes to ward off evil spirits + negativity.
The wreaths that hang on doors and walls during the holiday season offer yet another reminder of the life of the evergreen plant even in winter. In addition, the symbol of the circle is a reminder of eternal life… the hope that life, in some form, continues on throughout all of time. It is a beautiful symbol of the wheel of the year, the cycle of life and the rhythm of nature, which goes on forever.
Ancient cultures used bells during the winter season to chase away the darkness and evil spirits. The sound of a bell ringing, though, was not something frightening, but, instead a reminder of new life and hope even in the deep of winter. We often think of bells as ringing in the new year even today. A symbol and sound of a future filled with hope, justice, and love. Ringing bells is celebratory, a musical sound to lift our spirits and drive out negativity.
The Yule log
The tradition of a having yule log began with the Nordic countries. Logs were gathered and brought home. One log was designated as the yule log and decorated others symbols of the winter: evergreens, cinnamon, dried orange slices, and other seasonal offerings. It would then be burned in the hearth to welcome the light and protect the home. It’s not a tradition that is quite as popular today, even in Scandinavia. However, the tradition of bonfires for ceremonies of releasing the old to welcome in the new, with light and protection is quite common. It is also a powerful ritual of letting go and preparing for what is to come.
Even the colors that we associate with the winter season and these sacred days have meaning. These ancient symbols also tell the story of life-death-rebirth and the cycle of nature.
Red: Represents the Holly King (king of death and darkness), who gives his power to the Oak King (king of life and light) on the winter solstice
Green: Represents the Oak King, who will now be ruling in the Holly King’s stead after the winter solstice and the light returns
White: Symbolizes and calls in the energy of purity and hope for the new year
Silver: Represents the moon, who rules the night during the season of winter
Gold: Represents the sun, who returns after the winter solstice as the days grow longer and brighter until the summer solstice in June
Of course, these aren’t all of the symbols of the season. But, they are some of the most ancient ones that we still find today. And, I just thought it would be nice to gather them all in one place and take a few moments to remember where they came from and why we use them in our holiday traditions and rituals. Many of them will carry us through the holidays, into the new year, and all the way through winter.
Also, what symbols did I miss that mean a lot to you? Maybe you can teach me something new or remind me of something I forgot. Hehe. I just love finding out about new symbols and traditions and incorporating them into my own rituals. So, leave me a comment and share your most meaningful traditions/symbols!
And Happy Weekend! xoxo. liz.
Full disclosure: the evergreen and deer text is taken mostly from two previous posts. 🙂