The Holly and the Ivy … and a Little Sprig of Mistletoe

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Traditional Christmas card with holly and mistletoe. Date circa 1880s. Author: Shirley Wynne. Public Domain

Over the last couple of years I’ve written a number of posts about Christmas traditions in the U.K. I’ve done posts about Christmas trees, Yule logs, Boxing Day and Wassailing. I’ve also written about the Winter Solstice celebrations and Christmas markets. So this year, my first ‘Christmassy’ post is about the use of greenery – other than the Christmas tree.

Evergreens such as holly, ivy, mistletoe, laurel, fir and yew have been used in Northern Europe since pre-Christian times to celebrate the winter solstice (December 21). Staying green in the middle of winter, and not dying like most other plants, meant that evergreens symbolised eternal life. Hanging greenery in the home would ensure that new vegetation would return with the coming spring, as well as warding off evil spirits.

Greenery was also used in Rome for Saturnalia, the mid-winter celebration in honour of the god, Saturn. Romans decorated their houses with greenery, lit candles and enjoyed feasting and exchanging gifts with family and friends.

As Christianity spread, pagan cultures continued many of their midwinter practices, despite the disapproval of the Christian Church. Eventually, by 1600, the use of greenery became accepted in churches, though it took on a Christian perspective.

Holly is perhaps the most popular and well-known of the Christmas evergreens. Its prickly leaves symbolise the crown of thorns worn by Christ at His crucifixion and the bright red berries symbolise his drops of blood. In Scandinavia, holly is known as Christ Thorn.

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European holly (Ilex aqufolium) leaves and fruit. Author Jurgen Howaldt. Creative Commons

In early days, holly was believed to be a fertility symbol as well as having magical powers and the ability to drive away witches, goblins and demons. In medieval England, when people were very afraid of such supernatural beings – which were thought to be particularly active at Christmas time – unmarried women would tie a sprig of holly to their beds to guard themselves against such things. In Germany, holly was considered to be a good luck charm against the hostile forces of nature.

In the 1640s, during the rule of Oliver Cromwell when Puritans banned Xmas, Christian country folk still continued to hang up bunches of ‘holy’ boughs of evergreens as a symbol of Christmas. This became the holly bough we know today.

We have two, smallish holly trees in our garden. One has variegated leaves and red berries, the other is not variegated and has yellow berries (Ilex aquifolium Bacciflavia). I always think of Christmas colours being red and green, so we don’t usually bring any of the yellow one indoors at Christmas, but it’s quite pretty all the same. Here are a few photos of the two trees:

Ivy is such a common evergreen. Various species grow in so many places – often to heights of 30 metres above the ground. The following  pictures show just three varieties of the hedera species.

And these are a few photos from around our village. The bird table is in our garden and the ivy growing up it started life in a basket of flowers sent by one of our children a few years ago.

Ivy needs to cling to something to support itself – which, in the Christian view, reminds people of the need to cling to God for support in their lives.

In Roman times ivy was the ancient symbol of Bacchus, the god of wine and revelry. Due to such association with pagan festivals, ivy was banned from the insides of churches and Christian homes, and used only to decorate the outsides. In Germany, a piece of ivy tied to the outside of a church was once thought to protect it from lightning.

Nowadays, ivy has become part of the traditional Christmas greenery, particularly as part of Christmas wreaths that many people hang outside their front doors.

Before I say a little bit about mistletoe, here’s a nice little version of the old hymn, The Holly and the Ivy that I found on YouTube. There are several versions of it but I liked the sweet little images in this one from MyVoxSongNurseryRhymes.

Mistletoe is one of the Christmas greens that everyone knows something about. Kissing beneath it has become the norm at get-togethers and parties. Some people avoid it like the plague, other people scheme and plan as to how they can entice someone they fancy to stand beneath it.

One little snippet I read regarding the origin of the name ‘mistletoe’ did make me laugh. Apparently, the name comes from two Anglo Saxon words: ‘mistel’ – meaning dung – and ‘tan’ – meaning stick. So next time you stand canoodling beneath the mistletoe, remember that you’re doing it beneath some ‘poo on a stick’. (Not my words!).

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Mistletoe is a parasitic plant which attaches to and penetrates the trunk and branches of a tree or shrub by a structure called the haustorium, through which it draws water and minerals from the host.

European Mistletoe on an apple tree in Essex, England. Author: Chilepine. Public Domain

European Mistletoe (Viscum album) on an apple tree in Essex, England. Author: Chilepine. Public Domain

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Mistletoe growing in a tree in the Wye Valley, UK, showing white berries in medium close-up. Author: Alexbrn. Public Domain

The name originally referred to the species Viscum album (European mistletoe) found in Great Britain and much of Europe. Separate species occur in Spain, Southern Portugal, North Africa, Australia and Asia.  Over the centuries the term has broadened to include other species of parasitic plants with similar habits found in other parts of the world. The Eastern Mistletoe is native to North America. Viscum album is not native to North America but it has been introduced in California.

Eastern mistletoe has smooth edged, oval, evergreen leaves in pairs along a woody stem with waxy, white berries in clusters of 2-6. The Eastern mistletoe of North America is similar but has shorter, broader leaves and longer clusters of 10 or more berries.

Eastern Mistletoe (Phoradendron leucarpum) in Northeast Texas. Author: Loadmaster (David R. Tribble). Creative Commons

Eastern Mistletoe (Phoradendron leucarpum) in Northeast Texas. Author: Loadmaster (David R. Tribble). Creative Commons

Mistletoe is an attractive plant which provides contrast and interest when used alongside holly, ivy and other greenery, as in many Christmas wreaths and other arrangements of foliage.

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The Romans treated it with great respect due to (what they saw as) its magical/mystical properties. Although all parts of the plant are poisonous, mistletoe’s healing powers have been recently recognised. It can be used in homeopathic recipes used to lower blood pressure and it may also have a role in cancer remedies. (The usual warning applies here: Don’t try this at home!)

Mistletoe was sacred to the people of ancient Britain and, as in ancient Rome, it was considered to have magical properties. In the Celtic language the name ‘mistletoe’ was ‘all heal’ as it was thought to cure diseases and render poisons harmless. It could also make humans and animals fertile and protect the house from ghosts and bring good luck.

Druid priests used it in their sacrificial ceremonies, and possibly, also in marriage ceremonies, and people meeting under a tree bearing mistletoe were forbidden to fight – even if they were enemies. The kissing custom is believed to have comes down to us from the Celts, so perhaps the friendship offered beneath the tree was the start of things.

Later on, hanging up the mistletoe in a house was originally done to ward off evil spirits, as was the case with most evergreens. The Victorians used it in doorways and hung it from ceilings and it eventually it became acceptable for the odd ‘mistletoe kiss’ to take place. Tradition has it that the more berries the mistletoe has, the more kisses are possible. With every kiss a berry was plucked until the berries were all gone and the kissing stopoed.

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I’m adding this final picture simply because I like it!

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The Mistletoe Seller by Adrien Barrere. Date: before 1932. Author: Adrien Barrere ((1874-1931). Public Domain.

References:

1. Christmas Traditions and Customs:

http://www.whychristmas.com/customs/hollyandivy.shtml

2. Fashion Era: ChristmasCustoms -The Tradition of the Holly and the Ivy:

http://www.fashion-era.com/Christmas/christmas_customs_holly_history.htm

3. Woodland Trust:

https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/visiting-woods/trees-woods-and-wildlife/british-trees/native-trees/holly/

4. Wikipedia:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Holly

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hedera

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mistletoe

*****

About milliethom

I am a reader and writer of historical fiction with a keen interest in the Earth's history and all it involves, both physically and socially. I like nothing better than to be outdoors, especially in faraway places, and baking is something I do when my eyes need respite from my computer screen.
This entry was posted in Customs and Traditions and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

28 Responses to The Holly and the Ivy … and a Little Sprig of Mistletoe

  1. Gosh, Millie, I never really thought of holly, ivy or mistletoe as evergreens. Thank you for informing me! 🙂 I really enjoyed the YouTube video.
    By the way, I peeked at the list of characters in your book, Shadow of the Raven, and now I am loathe to return to 10th C. Iceland, which I must so that I can write my paper. So, as a compromise between needs and wants, I’m taking my Kindle with me tomorrow while I’m getting my car serviced and starting your book. For once, I hope the car dealership takes its sweet time doing the work! 🙂

    • milliethom says:

      Thanks, Timi. I liked this video best. Some of the others are beautifully sung, but just have the lyrics as background. Your research on 10th century Iceland sounds fascinating – and very Viking! As for my book, I can only hope you’ll like it! 🙂

      • Millie, I had to wait an hour at the doctor’s office this morning–turns out I have bronchitis. Ugh. But the good thing was that I remembered to take my Kindle, so I got to continue reading your book. I’m enjoying it immensely. What a traitor the Mercian king’s brother was! 😦 I’m glad he’s not getting to enjoy the fruits of his labors….

      • milliethom says:

        Bronchitis can be nasty, so do take care, Timi. I hope you manage to be clear of it by Christmas.
        I have to laugh at your sense of humour … ‘the good thing was…’ Lol. The Kindle can be a great source of comfort when we’re placed in annoyingly time-wasting situations. I don’t know how I’d cope without mine nowadays. I read a lot, and I can’t abide sitting around, doing nothing. It’s such a waste of valuable time.
        I’m so pleased you’re still enjoying my book. Burgred isn’t a character to inspire respect or admiration in any way at all (in my story, that is, Little is recorded about him in historical texts and, undoubtedly, I’ve seriously maligned the poor man).
        I wish you all the best with the rest of your Icelandic research paper. Having recently been to Iceland, I know the 10th century was a really interesting and vibrant time in the history of the island. I believe it was at that time that Christianity came to Iceland … such an upheaval (which you’ll know a lot more about than I do).
        I hope Ophelia is still enjoying her table-top basket. 😀

      • Thanks, Millie! I’m thinking rebellious thoughts and have some intention to perhaps go to at least part of the Yule Feast activities. I’m very bad–just like Ophelia! 😉

  2. arv! says:

    Lovely post. Since I’m not living in a county where there is significant Christian population, Christmas is celebrated in only commercial sense. It’s great to know about important elements of Christmas and all details surrounding it. You’ve done a great job!

    • milliethom says:

      Thank you, Arv. I love delving into old traditions and customs – and we have a lot of them in Britain! There are also many different traditions from other countries, which are equally fascinating.:)

      • arv! says:

        well said.Britain was certainly famed for following traditions and customs. I guess things would have changed over last 30 years though with the new generation not interested in following these. Is that true?

      • milliethom says:

        Yes, it is true, to a degree. We still use a lot of holly and mistletoe at Christmas, although perhaps not as much as when I was young. Many other traditions – mainly traditional Christmas foods – have changed a lot. The Christmas tree is still thriving and can be seen in stores, schools and homes everywhere. Styles of tree decorations have changed and many people now insist the decorations are colour coordinated. I suppose change is only to be expected.
        Thank you for that thought-provoking question, Arv. 🙂

      • arv! says:

        we see that happening here too, in all our festivals. The real essence of the festival is coming down, for example instead of using the traditional sweets for gifting on Diwali, people now gift chocolates. So some part is good…some is expected; I don’t know about the rest. I wouldn’t say that what used to happen before was all good; but increasing consumerism taking away the real spirit…well that’s worrying. So it’s like saying we’re celebrating it for sharing pictures on FB and not because of the real emotions or celebratory mood! Well, nothing much anyone can do about it, changes are constant! Happy to have this conversation! 🙂

      • milliethom says:

        I totally agree that increasing consumerism is the major change in traditions of any kind, worldwide. I hate it, and what I dislike most is seeing advertisements for Christmas (or Easter, or any other traditional celebration) for months before the time. Christmas adverts on TV start in October, which is madness! The spending side of it is also crazy. People put themselves in debt every year for many months into the New Year.
        In the UK, the city of Leicester has a huge Hindu population, and I love driving through the streets when I’m in that area, particularly at night. The Diwali lights are magnificent, and schoolchildren have shown me their lovely Diwali cards.

      • arv! says:

        I guess we all are affected by the same issues, degree and manner may differ though!
        I’m delighted to know that you enjoy Diwali celebrations. May I suggest you to visit Jaipur to experience it first hand? I’m sure you’ll love the festive mood! 🙂

  3. draliman says:

    Lots of cool info! I didn’t know the Puritans banned Christmas 😦 I bet the market stall holders weren’t happy, it was their busiest time of year!

    • milliethom says:

      I suppose the phrase, ‘the Puritans banned Christmas’ is misleading, yet it’s used in many texts. The Puritans banned the merry-making side of Christmas (feasting, drinking and having fun in any way at all!) What they insisted was that people should spend Christmas in prayer and going to Church. I’m wondering whether the term ‘party pooper’ originated here! 🙂

  4. Thank you Millie for sharing all this interesting information. The pic’s are amazing and I loved the cute video. Ivy always intrigued me as a child, as it clung and attached itself to walls. 🙂

    • milliethom says:

      I really love the Christmas greenery and much prefer it to all the glitzy decorations that appear every Christmas. I suppose a nice mix of the two is good, as children love the bright and sparkly things. The video is sweet, isn’t it – very ‘olde worlde’ – which is why I like it. 🙂

  5. Antonia says:

    Such a wonderful post Millie, and I learned so much! I never thought of evergreens symbolizing eternal life. So interesting! I also found the section on mistletoe fascinating, especially how many ways it has been used throughout history. Of course, I may have to think twice before I stand under the dung stick again, lol! Happy Holidays!

    • milliethom says:

      The part about ‘dung on a stick’ tickled me, too. I’d never heard that, either, until I was looking up about the plant. We live and learn, as they say. All evergreens were considered magical or mystical in bygone years. People wouldn’t have understood how they could stay green throughout the frosts and snows of winter, unless they possessed some special powers. or had been blessed by the gods. Thank you so much, Antonia, and Happy Holidays to you, too! 🙂

  6. wonderful post Millie. I love the song. Such a lovely history and ancient tradition. I always thought the church was very clever to incorporate Christmas with the old pagan feast. There’s a kind of continuity in that. So let the spirit of good will go on!! Season’s Blessings!

    • milliethom says:

      Thank you, Cybele! Like you, I love these old traditions. The amalgamation of pagan and Christian beliefs can be seen in so many of our customs today. I love looking round medieval cathedrals, some of which have images of the Green Man hidden away in obscure places. Even the great medieval stonemasons were afraid to completely forsake their old ways.

  7. inesephoto says:

    Such a delightful post, Millie! Our ancestors celebrated the darkest time of the year with jolly spirit.

  8. Aquileana says:

    Excellent post…. I loved learning about the symbolism of these plants, which are straightly related to Christmas… What truly caught my attention was the meaning of Ivy, and how this plant was linked to Dionysus (Bacchus): all that was new to me!. A wonderful reading dear Millie. Thanks for sharing!… sending love & best wishes. Happy Holiday, my friend. Aquileana 😀

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