The celebration and symbols of the Christmas holiday are of complex and multiple origins. Many ancient peoples observed the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, honoring their gods to ensure that the days would again grow longer and winter would pass to spring. Romans had the Saturnalia festival to honor Saturn, the god of time. It was held in December, and placing Christmas at this time of year grew out of this rambunctious Roman holiday.
Plants used for modern holiday decoration played a part in ancient religious celebrations. Evergreens were of particular interest to the ancient Europeans, as they symbolized life in the midst of winter death. The Romans considered holly to be a plant sacred to Saturn, and holly wreaths were given as gifts at the Saturnalia. Holly was adopted by the Christians, who not only used its prickly green leaves and red berries to symbolize the Crown of Thorns, but also believed it was the wood used to build the Cross.
A charming tradition in England is for beekeepers to put a sprig of holly on their beehives. It is said that in the manger in Bethlehem, bees “hummed in honor of the Christ Child.” You can almost hear them humming as an undercurrent to “Pa-Rum-Pum-Pum-Pum.”
A custom of various Germanic tribes was to bring an evergreen Yule tree into the home to celebrate the solstice. (“Yule” comes from the month of “Jol,” our December.) Following the festivities, the branches were removed, and the tree’s trunk was saved to serve as a May Pole. Afterwards, the trunk was cut up, and a large log was kept to light the first fire of the winter solstice celebration. This may have evolved into the practice of bringing a Christmas tree into the home.
Mistletoe was particularly revered, as this parasitic plant remains green even as its host tree loses its leaves for the winter. A Scandinavian tale held that the god of the sun, Baldur, was slain when Hoder, the blind god of winter, accidentally shot him with an arrow of mistletoe wood. (Mistletoe was his Achilles heel, as it were. His mother Frigga, the Valkyrie, had extracted a promise from all of the elements, plants and animals to not harm her son. She forgot to talk to mistletoe.)
Freya, goddess of love, placed Baldur’s body beneath an oak tree upon which mistletoe grew. She wept over the body, and her tears became the white berries of mistletoe. Baldur eventually returned to life, and a joyful Freya kissed everyone that passed under the tree upon which the mistletoe grew.
To enjoy cut greens for the holidays, remember that they will hold up best if placed in water and kept cool. A spray with an anti-transpirant, such as Wilt-Pruf®, will help to slow the rate of drying, and add a shiny luster to leaves or needles.
Remember to keep holly and mistletoe out of the reach of little folk as the poisonous berries may be attractive to children.
by Larry Hurley, Horticulturist