Ancient Britain’s were fascinated by the way evergreens stayed green throughout the bleak days of winter. A symbol of life, evergreen is taken from the old midwinter festival, which encourages the return of the sun. The three most popular, holly, ivy and mistletoe are steeped in tradition.
The most striking features of the holly, are its red berries, offering bright color in the dark countryside, and its hard surfaced, shiny leaves, frequently armed with prickles. People used it to protect their homes from evil spirits. Witches and warlocks were said to be deterred from entering by the holly’s prickly leaves and also by its reputation for holiness (the word “holly” being derived from holy). It was considered unlucky not to have holly in the house at Christmas.
Though ivy can eventually kill a tree by smothering it, it is not a parasite. It draws nourishment through its roots in the ground. The small hairy roots which grow along the stem are used only to give it a foothold as it climbs.
The ivy’s pale, greenish-yellow flower clusters bloom in late autumn; the black berries, ripen in the following spring. They are welcomed by birds, though, like the fruits of mistletoe and holly, they are poisonous to human beings.
The tradition goes that when decorating the house with evergreens at Christmas, care must be taken not use ivy alone, or even predominate, as it’s a plant of bad omen and will prove injurious.
The Druids, who lived in Britain in pre-Christmas times, are responsible for the use of mistletoe. They worshipped the oak tree and mistletoe, which grew on oak trees and was regarded with special significance. The oak was sacred, and the mistletoe was thought to be the spirit of the oak grove that lived on when the trees “died” in winter. At a midwinter ceremony the Druids cut twigs of it, and these were hung over doorways as symbols of hospitality and fertility. They believed chopping down an oak tree covered in mistletoe promised death to the woodcutter within the year.
The tradition of “kissing under the mistletoe” initially came from the Druids who dedicated mistletoe to the Goddess of Love. Later, the Victorians bound the mistletoe to a frame to make a “kissing ring”. Each time a gentleman caught a lady under the mistletoe he was allowed to claim a kiss.
Evergreens are a lovely way to decorate your home for the Christmas season. Steeped in pagan tradition, they are an everlasting symbol of times gone by, when everything in nature was of significance.
A beautiful rendering of the famous Christmas Carol – The Holly and the Ivy – can be found on YouTube.