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.
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!).
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.
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.
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.
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.
I’m adding this final picture simply because I like it!
1. Christmas Traditions and Customs:
2. Fashion Era: ChristmasCustoms -The Tradition of the Holly and the Ivy:
3. Woodland Trust: