(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on December 7, 2011. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)

December, like the words “decade” and “decimal,” takes its name from the Latin “decem” or ten, since it was the tenth month in the old Roman calendar. To the early Saxons, this was “Winter-monath.” The Old English term for the season, particularly the period around the solstice, was midwinter or “midde winter." Peoples in northern lands have observed the winter solstice since prehistoric times, in celebration of the gradual return of the sun.

In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter
Long ago.

Christina Georgina Rossetti, “A Christmas Carol”

The Onset of Winter
December 1st is the first day of meteorological winter in the northern hemisphere and the first of the winter months of December, January and February. December 21st or 22nd marks the winter solstice or midwinter’s day for those north of the equator. The length of time between sunrise and sunset is at a minimum on this day, making it the shortest of the year. The earliest sunset occurs around December 8th and the latest sunrise around January 5th, according to the U.S. Naval Observatory website. It's no wonder that the period from early December to early January is often referred to as the “dark days of winter” in mid-northern latitudes.

Plants of the Winter Holidays
Holly, ivy and mistletoe and evergreens such as fir, spruce, pine and yew have been associated with winter holidays and celebrations for thousands of years.

The ancients credited holly with magical powers, and the Romans considered it an omen of good fortune and a symbol of immortality. In the Christian religion, holly’s thorns and bright red berries came to represent the crucifixion. At one time, it was considered bad luck to burn or chop holly, or to even bring it indoors at any other time than Christmas.

Often wound into a wreath or garland, ivy was a symbol of marriage and fidelity to the ancient Romans. Because it was associated with Bacchus, god of wine, ivy was important to the celebration of Saturnalia, a pagan holiday forerunner of Christmas. Like holly, ivy took on new symbolism to early Christians, for whom it represented charity.

Mistletoe was sacred to the Druids, the priestly class of the Celtic Iron Age, likely because they venerated the oak tree that provided a host for this hemiparasitic plant. The ever-popular practice of giving and receiving a kiss under a bough of Christmas mistletoe was first documented in England in the 16th century. This custom possibly derives from mistletoe’s association with fertility.
To early man, any plant that retained its green leaves or needles through the frozen winter months was regarded as magical. The ancient Celts believed that by bringing evergreens indoors in winter, they were offering protection to woodland spirits.

Winter Festivals
Numerous cultures observe festivals this month. On December 8, Bodhi Day, or Day of Enlightenment, is observed by many Buddhists in China, Korea and Japan. Yalda, an ancient Persian winter solstice celebration, marks the longest night of the year for Iranians.

The dates of the eight-day Jewish festival of Hanukkah are determined by the lunar Hebrew calendar, and thus may occur at any time from late November to late December. This commemoration of the rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem is sometimes called the Festival of Lights.

The Hindu holiday called Pancha Ganapati, held from December 21st to the 25th, and the secular Pan-African celebration of Kwanzaa from December 26th through January 1st are both relatively recently proposed December celebrations.

ImageThe best-known and most widely celebrated winter holiday in America is, of course, Christmas on December 25th. This Christian holiday celebrating the birth of Jesus incorporated many customs from old pagan celebrations, including Saturnalia, a major Roman midwinter festival, and Yule, an ancient pagan Germanic winter solstice festival. Our modern-day custom of Christmas caroling bears much resemblance to Koleda, an old Slavic winter ritual of strolling and singing.


If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

Percy Bysshe Shelley

December Symbols
Narcissus, the birth flower of December, is one of the most welcome signs of spring. In Greek mythology, Narcissus was a man of such beauty and pride that he eventually became transfixed by his own reflection. The paperwhite narcissus can easily be forced to bloom inside, offering a touch of spring during the winter months. White-flowered paperwhites have a powerful fragrance that some find overwhelming indoors. You may prefer the yellow-flowered varieties, which have a more delicate, sweet smell.

December’s alternate birth flower is the poinsettia or Euphorbia pulcherrima, a plant native to Mexico. This Christmas-time favorite was first introduced into the U.S. in 1825 by Joel Poinsett, the first American minister to Mexico. Today, 90 percent of all poinsettias are exported from the U.S. What many people think of as the plant’s flowers are actually colorful bracts, or modified leaves; the tiny white or yellow dots at the center of the bracts are the flowers. Although the traditional poinsettia color is a bright cherry red, you can now find this holiday favorite in all shades of red as well as pink, cream, and peach.

Turquoise is the contemporary birthstone of December and one of the most valuable of the non-transparent minerals. Much of the world’s supply is mined in the southwestern U.S. This stone was sacred to many Native American tribes, who believed it promoted spiritual clarity. The colors of turquoise may vary from light blue to deep blue-green. "Turquoise" is also a color name and is believed to derive from the French “pierre turquoise,” meaning “Turkish stone,” since the first turquoise seen in Europe was acquired in Turkish bazaars.

ImageBlue Topaz
Blue topaz, an alternate birthstone of December, symbolizes love and fidelity. This gem can be found in various depths of color, which is created when the stone is heated. The lightest of the blue topazes is a clear sky blue color. A medium, true blue shade of the stone is called Swiss blue. The deepest shade, London blue, sometimes substitutes for sapphire. Other alternate birthstones for the month include the blue zircon and the periwinkle blue-colored tanzanite.

Image credits:
Cardinal by Kathy (rittyrats)
“Mid Winter”
painting by Thomas P. Barnett, 1929, from Wikimedia Commons, in the public domain
Holly by parl
Ivy by sasastro
Mistletoe by Eric Meyer
Evergreen by Julie Danielle
Signs of spring by Reenie-Just Reenie
Ornament by Petr Kratochvil
Narcissus by ceasol
Poinsettia by Diane Hammond
Turquoise by InExtremiss

Blue topaz by the justified sinner