Christmas comes but once a year and with it a whole host of horticultural traditions that we observe almost without thought; we reveal all about their ancient origins…
When we deck the halls with boughs of holly, for example, we’re respecting a ritual that pre-dates the Christian celebration of Christmas. With such an ancient past, it is no wonder that we no longer question what the link is between marking the birth of Christ and bringing plants into our homes….
The Christian celebration of Christmas replaced much older pagan rituals that were held around the winter solstice, the shortest day in the northern hemisphere. Ceremonies were performed to ensure that the sun returned, and with it the summer crops. Evergreens, which thrive all-year-round despite harsh weather conditions, were quite naturally connected with these observances.
Mistletoe was considered a sacred, magical plant by the druids (perhaps not surprisingly, since it has no roots and grows in high places), and they ascribed to it all manner of miraculous properties. For example, taking a sprig into the home would ensure that those inside were protected against evil spirits. It could also be used to render poisons harmless and to cure sterility, amongst other things. This was one plant that the early Christians did not adapt to their religion, and it was not allowed in churches. Still, it remained popular as a form of Christmas decoration, and in England is inseparably associated with amorous intentions: any young lady caught standing under the mistletoe cannot refuse to be kissed. One version of this tradition states that a berry must be removed for each kiss; some say this version arose during the reign of the prudish Queen Victoria (“we are not amused…”) and ensured that once the berries ran out, so did the kisses.
Holly is similarly connected with a wide range of pagan superstitions and was much used in the Romans’ licentious celebrations of Saturnalia, which began on 17th December. Its appearance, spiky thorns and red berries, meant that the Christians were able to rework it into a symbol of Christ’s crown of thorns, thereby allowing recently converted pagans to continue making it a part of their festivities. And, in fact, in Denmark holly is known as the Christ thorn. It is traditionally featured alongside ivy, since they were long thought be male (holly) and female (ivy). There is also a superstition that the type of holly leaf brought into the home foretells who will dominate in the new year: a rounded leaf puts the woman at the head of the household; a spiky leaf points to the man.
Where would we be without our Christmas trees? It certainly wouldn’t feel right to celebrate the season without them. Yet they didn’t become popular as an indoor feature of Christmas until 1841, when Queen Victoria’s German husband Prince Albert introduced one as part of the festivities at Windsor Castle. The actual origins of this tradition are not clear, although numerous pagan religions worshipped – and decorated – trees. One legend ascribes it to the 10th-century St Boniface, who cut down an oak that was being worshipped by pagans, only to find that a fir tree had sprung up in its place – so the new religion replaced the old. Today, we have embraced this custom and buy around 6 million real Christmas trees every year.
Nowadays we also often devour chocolate-covered cake versions of yule logs at Christmas, little realizing that the whole point is to leave a bit for next year… Once again, this tradition began as a pagan ritual and was adopted by the Christians. A sizable tree trunk would be cut down and brought into the house on Christmas Eve. With one end placed in the fire, and the trunk reaching out into the room, the log would burn continuously for the twelve days of Christmas. It was considered bad luck if the fire was allowed to go out. A piece of the trunk was saved for lighting next year’s yule log and, at the same time, would protect the house from lightning.
So now you know….!