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
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
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….!
Want to find out more about horticultural history? Why
not read these books...
reprinted with permission from Greenfingers.com