Understanding our traditions – The history of Christmas plants
Christmas traditions are older than Christmas itself many originating in ancient times before even the Roman, Greek and Egyptian civilisations.
In the dim and distant past before the ancient Romans, pagan priests in Europe especially in England and Wales used evergreen plants in strange and mysterious ceremonies to ward off evil spirits and because they remained green year round the winter evergreens became associated with long life. So the plants were used to ensure a long life and to welcome the approaching spring.
Holly, Ivy and Mistletoe
As it bears white berries in mid-December the mistletoe was significant for ancient Britain’s druids because of this it was associated with immortality and used to cure animal infertility. The berries themselves are poisonous to humans.
Mistletoe is hung indoors to protect the house from disaster. The tradition of kissing under the mistletoe goes back to antiquity but was enthusiastically embraced by the prudish Victorians who stole kisses under the plant. For each kiss a berry was removed and when denuded of berries the kissing had to stop.
The thorny leaves of the holly symbolise the crown of thorns Jesus wore at his crucifixion and the red berries the blood shed. The ivy too is symbolic of everlasting life.
Legend has it that Martin Luther the Christian Reformation leader was struck by the beauty of a snow-covered grove of fir trees as they twinkled and sparkled in the moonlight that he placed a tree in his house and attached candles to mimic the effects of nature and to glorify God.
It was not until the middle of the 19th century that the practice spread to Great Britain. Queen Victoria’s consort Prince Albert was German and it was he who brought the first Christmas tree to Britain when he had one placed in the living room at Windsor Castle. From there the fashion spread rapidly to middle class homes.
Today’s Christmas trees are lit with ‘fairy lights’, glass baubles, and garlands of shiny tinsel. Nowadays the tree is just as likely to be an artificial one as real.
Many new houses do not have fireplaces and chimneys and this is certainly so in the tropics, so the tradition of hanging stockings over the mantelpiece in the expectation of it being packed with gifts is disappearing. Gifts are arranged under the Christmas tree.
Christmas tree decorations were first produced in Germany in the 17th century.
It is thought that burning the Yule Log was another way to celebrate the last of the winter’s short days and to welcome the longer summer days. The log was lit on December 24th and was thought to bring good luck and prosperity for the coming year. The ashes were scattered in wells to keep the water sweet and spread around the roots of fruit trees and vines to ensure a good harvest. However should the fire die than that meant 12 months of bad luck.
Pagans’ believed that the burning log represented the rebirth of the sun as the days became longer and spring approached. As with so many other pagan winter traditions the early Christian church adopted the Yule log and made it its own, now the burning log represented the light of the Christ child.
How fasscinating our Christmas customs and traifitions are!