PUBLISHED: 15:43 27 July 2010 | UPDATED: 15:35 20 February 2013
Many plants at this time of year have a long tradition in Christmas customs, although their use is actually a blend of both Christian and earlier practices
Words and pictures by Leigh Clapp
The concept of celebrating Christ's birthday on 25 December is believed to have been decided by Pope Julius 1 in the fourth century AD. Over the centuries, Christmas customs have become an amalgam of Christian and pagan ceremonies. Plants have always played an important part in decorations and their influence is reflected in songs and traditional carols.
Yule, the day of the winter solstice, falls on or around 21 December and many of the traditions were continued to help the acceptance of Christianity as it spread across different countries. Celtic and Nordic traditions have remained the greatest influence on plants used to adorn our homes and gardens in December.
Evergreens, symbolising everlasting life and good luck, decked houses of the pagans of Europe and Asia. In Northern Europe, the winter solstice was celebrated with fire, lights and evergreens to symbolise fertility and a looking forward to the return of summer.
The three classic plants that have long had a place in our seasonal rituals are holly, ivy and mistletoe. Holly has the closest association, conjuring up visions of wreaths and garlands. Considered a male symbol, referring to the sun god in his death and resurrection, holly was traditionally brought indoors by a man.
The Druids revered it as sacred, the Celts believed the Holly King ruled over winter and death, while the Romans believed this evergreen with its red berries was a symbol of good will.
In many pagan religions, placing holly leaves and branches around their dwellings was a hospitable gesture, encouraging tiny forest fairies to shelter inside from the cold. For other ancient religions, holly was used as a protection from witchcraft and demons, by placing it around the windows and doors to dissuade any evil spirits from entering.
As Britain converted to Christianity, the early Christians incorporated the tradition of decorating their homes with holly, changing the significance of the berries to symbolise the blood of Christ and the prickly leaves, the crown of thorns.
Ivy was traditionally seen as the female emblem, the counterpart to holly. Associated with fertility, immortality and eternal life in many early religions, it was often used in ceremonies and woven into circlets.
The superstitions and mythology surrounding this twining evergreen. It was considered sacred to many gods, including Bacchus, the Roman god of wine and revelry, leading to it being banished from churches for a time. But many positive connotations exist, including fidelity, marriage, protection and healing as well as some negative, due to its clinging nature, such as secrecy.
In pagan winter festivals, ivy was also used to ward off evil spirits, which led to it being used indoors on stairways and hearths at Christmas. However it was considered bad luck if ivy was brought into the house before the holiday season or if it touched the mantelpiece.
Before the Christmas tree, a kissing bough made from a double hoop or wreath of evergreens was the main indoor decoration. It was decorated with ribbons, baubles, apples, oranges, nuts and candles and mistletoe was suspended beneath, to twirl in the slightest draft.
The custom of kissing under the mistletoe is thought to have come from Norse legends along with the belief that as well as symbolising fertility, the plant could cure almost any disease. Anyone standing under the mistletoe plant would never be hurt and was entitled to a kiss.
Decorating a Yule tree was originally a pagan custom. As evergreens were revered as a natural symbol of rebirth and life, a live tree was brought into the home so the wood spirit had a place to stay warm.
Bells were hung on the limbs to ring if a spirit was present, as well as food to eat, and a star placed on top to represent the five elements. Brightly coloured decorations were hung on evergreens, such as pines, cedars, junipers and firs to symbolise the continuity of the seasons and protection for the New Year.
It is believed that the first Christian Christmas tree was in eighth century Germany, when a decorated fir was used to pay homage to Christ as an alternative to making sacrifices to the sacred oak. Cut and decorated evergreens were used by the church in Germany in medieval times and this tradition spread through Northern Europe. During the Reformation, an evergreen lit with candles symbolised new-born hope.
Queen Charlotte brought the first ever Christmas tree to Britain from Germany in the 18th century, and Prince Albert and Queen Victoria sealed the custom in 1841 when they erected a Christmas tree in Windsor Castle. Dickens' writings, such as A Christmas Carol, confirmed its popularity and celebrated the traditions of decoration we continue today.
Sources for greenery, in addition to what your garden can offer, include:
- Local florists, garden centres, farm shops and Christmas tree growers
- Bedgebury Retail Centre, Goudhurst - Christmas trees
- Kingswood Christmas trees - trees and wreaths
- Newlands Nursery, Ide Hill - Christmas trees
- Palace Farm, Doddington - trees, mistletoe, wreaths