Unravelling the layers behind Christmas

December 23, 2016

About ten years ago I found myself standing in a long post office queue in the little Kentish sea-side town of Herne Bay, where I grew up.

To find a way of entertaining myself as I waited, I asked myself, “if an alien landed next to me right now, how would I explain what is going on in here?” You see, I was standing in line to post Christmas cards, and each of the three Post Office cashiers was dressed in fancy dress costumes. One was an elf, one a Father Christmas and one was wearing reindeer antlers.

I was struggling I have to say.

People will tell me, well “it’s tradition, it’s is what we do at this time of year.” But why?

I was intrigued as to what lay behind it. Why do we do these things at this time of year? Why the lights on the Christmas tree? Who is Santa Claus really? Why put mistletoe up and kiss underneath it? What is the Yule Log? Why gather together and party? Feast?

I started to look into answers to these questions and it was a significant contributing factor to my awakening, following the thread to unraveling this mystery.

Here are a few great blogs that have been doing the rounds this year presenting an explanation behind the origins of these traditions: The Shamanic Origins of ChristmasThe Spirit of Mother Christmas and The Lost Female Figures of Christmas, and there will be many more. Do post links in the comments below if you have any to share.

When I was growing up in an Evangelical Christian family, looking back there was a curious duality at Christmas.

We were big on celebrating the birth of Jesus, and there was an explanation behind all of the story and imagery that made sense at the time. Then along side the Christian story there were all kinds of other crazy stuff around magic and reindeer, elves and fairies.


The interweaving Worlds

I don’t know whether I quizzed my Mum and Dad at the time, but looking back it all makes sense now. It was the Christian world and the ‘Old Ways’ world interweaving.

Before Christianity we had a particular way of celebrating the return of the Light at the longest day of the year, with nature and Otherworldly activities at the foundation.

As Christianity was brought in those traditions were superimposed over the Old Ways. But it wasn’t possible to stop people from celebrating in the way they had always celebrated. So the Old Ways stuck.

Now it’s created the most intriguing blend hasn’t it! …which culturally we go quite hysterical about in contrast to other times of the year.

I wonder if we are tapping into a very deep and distant memory of how we used to celebrate this time of year, which explains why we pick up the reindeer antlers and santa hats so easily.

With this newfound knowledge I find myself in a position where I can choose which parts of the ‘tradition’ I engage in. I can pick out what is important to me at that this time of year, and follow that path. I wonder how close I am to mirroring what my far distant ancestors would have done at this time of year.


Our Solstice celebrations

For our Winter Solstice celebration we gathered some gorgeous souls together whom we have been working with though the year celebrating each of the eight solar festivals.

We went into the woods, and as the last of us arrived a thick fog which had been lingering all morning lifted. We built our fire and warmed up mulled wine on the stove and tucked into a feast of deliciousness.

We shared stories, poems and songs together, and then as we each wandered through the trees reflecting on the true meaning of this time of year we were treated to a soul-searching sunset across the lake.

We shared our insights and final words huddled around the dying embers of the fire, and were gifted a final fly-by from Heron as the fog closed back in around us.

It’s a rare and special thing to be in woodland at dusk in fog with friends, and is a magical experience.

With each step something new emerges in front of your eyes, framed in a soft mysterious light. It was quite the Otherworldly journey back to the cars, our spirits lifting us through to the point of the returning sun in a few days time.


Our true meaning

So what is the true meaning for you at this time of year?

For me it is all about stillness and connection. Spending time connecting with friends and family and making new memories to hold on to. Being still by the fireside nibbling on delicious food and losing myself in a good book. Going for long walks out in the countryside and soaking up the tranquility.

So I avoid the shops, keep away from nights out as I find that it brings on a cold or worse still flu, and I understand why I am decorating our home in mistletoe, holly and ivy. I give to charity rather than send Christmas cards, chat to elves in Aldi, and try not to make too many forward plans to fill the days and evenings.

I look for that stillness as the sun rests on the horizon for three days between the Winter Solstice and Christmas Eve, and I join in with singing Christmas carols at any opportunity. I just leave out some of the words that don’t quite land with me, such as Mary being a virgin!

It’s a happy happy time…

… and after all these years of reflection and investigation, I am getting close to being able to have a sensible conversation with that alien if it ever does land next to me in the Post Office queue!

About the Author


Nicola Smalley is an edge-dweller, shamanic practitioner and writer living in the Arnside and Silverdale Area of Natural Beauty in north Lancashire, England.

Following a career in corporate sustainability, she now runs The Way of the Buzzard with her husband Jason. Her passion is anything connected to nature and the mysteries of the Earth.

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  1. I’m trying to work out whether to be encouraged or discouraged by this to go to Post Offices!
    Anyway, a lovely and thought stimulating piece. I have found myself this year explaining to several Norwegians about the tradition of the Yule Log. As an Englishman living in Norway, this is interesting as it was originally a Scandinavian tradition. The word Jule (Eng. Yule) is used to signify “Christmas” but, of course, is not a direct translation. the dominant features of Jule here are as we might expect to see on most UK high streets (including post offices!), such as plastic nativity scenes, Santa type characters and the usual array of felt adornments that proudly accompany the air of commercial excitement.
    All very interesting, thank you Nicola.

    1. Thanks for your comments Simon 🙂
      It’s interesting that Norway has lost the meaning of it’s tradition, given that we in the UK have adopted their tradition. I haven’t got to the bottom of Christmas tree borbles (excuse spelling) and the fairy on the top. I would love to know the origins os those…

      1. It seems that here the tradition is to put a star on top, never a fairy or angel. I guess a star makes some kind of sense in relation to the nativity story? However, Norwegians generally do hang borbles on the tree. I did ask a few people why but none of them knew.
        I also find it interesting that Santa Claus is replaced by Julenissen, which is a mischeivous gnome type guy who looks, coincidently, just like Santa. I haven’t heard of him riding a sleigh through the sky, nor coming down chimneys, I think he lives in a barn or something. There is also a tradition of a Christmas mouse as well as a Christmas pig, I have yet to get to understand much about those at all.
        I was speaking with a Czech the other day who told me it is common there to tell children that the baby Jesus rather than Santa Claus brings them their presents at Christmas.
        I’m imagining this alien would become quite confused if confronted with Christmas traditions Nicola.

  2. A beautiful post as always. Yes this time is perfect for stillness and connection; I also do some reflection as well during this time of the year. I also try not to be very busy either since its a resting period. 😀
    The woods you went look beautiful too 🙂

  3. Nicola, Thank you for collating this rich history of the origins behind xmas and presenting it well. Going back to your Alien at the post office. It is like he says “Well all this stuff you have now does not take into account where it all came from and my people have more in common with your past and what was believed then. Go back to go forward and then we will see you then!”

  4. So enjoyed reading your blog Nicola in particular it resonated with me about this time of year being able to be still and connect. Sitting by my log burner reading a good book some chocolate simple pleasures make my heart sing and walking in such a gorgeous place where we are fortunate to live. Your winter solstice evening looked fabulous. Enjoy the season xxx

    1. Thank you Shirley-Ann, yes simple pleasures! We are so lucky to live in this incredible place on the edge of the West Pennine Moors – what more could we ask for 🙂 xxx

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