Bartlett on Gardening: Deck the Halls

December 16, 2017

Why do we hang up holly and mistletoe? In northern latitudes, the first day of winter is much shorter than it is here. For ancient societies this was quite worrisome. What if the sun just disappeared? The solstice rituals were regarded as critical to survival. People of the past assigned importance to many things in the natural world, including them in their winter solstice traditions. Some of these traditions remain with us today.


The ancient Celtic people made wands out of assorted woods to provide magical protection from various harmful things. Holly wands were protective against negative energy and used in the solstice rituals. Ivy was believed to promote deeper commitment. Wrapping any wand with ivy amped up its protective power. Ivy must cling to something for support. Later, it reminded early Christians to cling to God. Holly represented the crown of thorns. The custom of hanging holly wreaths began to remind Christmas revelers of Good Friday.


To the ancient Celtic people, mistletoe represented enchantment and belief in things not yet seen. To them, it was an all-purpose protective herb used to purify ritual sites as well as homes.


The Celts lived in the area we call France as well as the British Isles. The Druids, outlawed by the Romans in the first century A.D., were the educated elite within Celtic society. They served as healers, astronomers, judges, architects and priests.


Mistletoe is a parasitic plant which, in France, grows primarily on apple trees and only rarely on oaks. When Druids found one growing on a sacred oak, it was considered to be the soul of the tree. They would harvest it shortly before the winter solstice to include it in rituals on that day. The solstice was very important to them, representing rebirth after the longest night of the year.


So how is it that we associate mistletoe with kissing? The Norse people of Scandinavia considered the plant sacred to their goddess of love who just happened to be the sun god’s  mother. They celebrated Yule on the solstice to honor the return of the sun god and included his mother’s emblem as a part of the festivities. They also decked the Yule hall with holly, a symbol of winter.


The Romans honored their god of agriculture, Saturn, with a festival beginning Dec. 17. The holiday lasted from three to seven days depending on who was emperor. Now, these folks knew how to put fun into a festival. This was a very upbeat occasion which included plenty of feasting and merrymaking by all. Even the slaves were off duty throughout Saturnalia. When the Romans converted to Christianity, the tone of old festival carried over to the new winter solstice celebration, Christmas.


The Christmas tree is not the only evergreen associated with the winter solstice. The ancient Celts held elaborate rituals at this time of year which included many symbolic plants.

The Norse and Romans also used evergreens in their winter celebrations. Christianity changed the meanings of the symbols


to fit its message, allowing folks to keep familiar traditions.


Master gardener Ann Bartlett never lets lack of familiarity with a plant keep her from tying it with red and green ribbons over the doorway in hope of a kiss. 

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