‘Christian’ Plants that reconnect us with our pagan ancestors
A celebration of festive evergreens.
To most people reading this, it’s the run up to Christmas, a time of merriment and celebration. Along with dutiful communications, fear of offence and panic shopping.
Here in north west Europe, religions have tied in with early seasonal traditions. We live now in a blend of different traditions which have one foot in nature and the other in religion. I’m most interested in the first foot. But also in how nature has influenced religion and religious practices, which have supplanted or infused activities which were immensely important to us as a species – our animal selves. Now often lost under our self-placed crown of superior sentience. I much prefer to see us as animals, either blended-with or estranged-from nature. It makes us easier to understand and more fun to watch.
In honour of Saturn, the god of seed-sowing (arable farming really), Roman Britain, around what is now the 17th December to the 23rd, celebrated the annual festival of Saturnalia. With public feasts, music, dance and gambling. As well as role reversals and the reign of the lord of misrule. Evergreens were used as decorations and holly was given to acquaintances as a sign of friendship.
Jesus came along, and, after taking some considerable time to absorb his philsophy, heavily edited by the Roman Saul (alias Paul) who never met Jesus, the Roman leadership adopted Christianity as the official religion of the empire. Delivered to us Brits, among others, as a good thing. The nominal birth of Christ’s anniversary was plonked roughly on top of Saturnalia, transforming it somewhat. But the traditions of holly and evergreens endured to this day. In fact, evergreen décor adorns the festive house of many, and there is a chance yet, that elements of pagan tradition will outlast Christianity!
Some of the traditions that carried on into Christianity, probably came from pre-roman times, which I find much more interesting. It all links in, of course, with something that animals, plants and other lifeforms get along with much more easily, the changing seasons and the winter solstice. Knowledge of this goes back much further than the ancient Greeks, Romans, Egyptians and even the Sumerians. As Stonehenge (built by early farmers) acknowledges awareness of the summer solstice well over 4000 years ago. Warren fields (built by hunter gatherers) in Aberdeenshire at about 10,000 years old has been Identified as a lunar calendar. The world’s oldest, which identified and was re-calibrated on the winter solstice.
This, to my mind, puts that Christmassy feeling right back to the time when Irish elk might still be about, and mammoths were not completely extinct. Knowing it may be that ancient, pre-Christian and pre-civilization as we now know it, and partly ‘natural’ too and suddenly, I’m feelin’ festive!
The end or the beginning, the melody of moonths and soltices
Christmas, Saturnalia or the winter solstice are simultaneously the end and the start of a recognisable rhythm. As animals who search for patterns, the recognition of a cosmic rhythm tied into our everyday lives, and the seasonal development of food and warmth essential to existence, is beyond satisfying. The sun establishes the beat, rising, peaking and setting reliably like birth, life and death. Months, of course, are moonths by origin, recognising the 29 and a half day cycle of that beguiling and changeable orb, whose melody plays out the year in 12 verses. The sun, responds poetically in the duet with solstices and equinoxes that provide a chorus, a beginning and an end.
The end, and the beginning, is the winter solstice when most of life has halted, light is scarce and there is, or should be, time to look around and wonder at the cosmic (or astrological?) nature of our situation. We’ve woken up, lost in space. Our guardians are the sun, moon and planets and our home is the earth. Personally, I’m more astronomical than astrological but both see our place in space and the importance of the celestial bodies.
The Shortest Day
Perhaps our ability to use tools, or even the landscape in the case of Warren fields, to predict and teach the seasons, enabled more prepared and efficient hunting and harvesting. Heralding the decline of the mega-mammals and the birth of farming. Even before that, in cave art, there are beguiling dots and abstract designs which may have been calendars of some sort. It is fascinating, and enlightening I think, to see these relics of us, as animals, fathoming out what’s going on and becoming ever more human; more artistic, more scientific, more religious, more romantic and more inventive.
The shortest day and the arrival of lengthening days has been highly important to us. It’s not recent, chimps have been found to predict when the fruits of particular trees, a good distance away, will become ripe, requiring them to wake up early and make a move before dawn (something they hate doing). We’ve carried a sense of timing at least from our common ancestors with chimps. And, our friends in those darkest days are, and probably always have been, the evergreens; and here’s why.
Holly (Ilex aquifolium)
Of all the trees that are in the wood the holly bears the crown
Traditional Folk Carol
Holly is the only British member of the family aquifoliaceae and, with the exception of box, is our only native broadleaved evergreen. This can become extremely important if you find yourself stuck out in bad weather in winter. Luckily, it is also our commonest evergreen tree but probably more through planning by our ancestors than by accident. Like other evergreens, holly provides hope in the darkest days of the winter solstice. When the sun is barely poking her head above the horizon. Perhaps even threatening to disappear forever, the trees have lost their leaves and the grass has ceased to grow. There is holly, with her bright berries and her leaves growing as if there’s nothing to worry about.
Holly leaves, when you stop to look, are something of a delight to behold. They’re like little supernovas here on earth. They look as if each one should have boom, wham or kerpow written inside them in a comic-sans font! Holly is the only evergreen tree or shrub north of the alps in Europe whose leaves don’t contain toxins. Important winter browse and fodder in the days before hay bales. That’s a boom in the winter lull that provides essential kerpow… per-cow.
Holly in woods is a sign of grazing because it resists summer grazing better than most trees and shrubs. It even thrives in coppices, but it was also encouraged. Holly’s value is recognised in records of agreements right up to the mid-18th century. Its use is mentioned in the medieval text The Mabinogion. In the Dream of Rhonabwy, the floor of the old black house of Heilyn Goch has a covering of branches of holly whose tips have been eaten by the cattle.
The importance of holly almost certainly pre-dates farming practices though…
“The rising of the sun
And the running of the deer”…
… Might be a clue to holly’s importance to our hunter gathering ancestors or those who hunted deer in preference to farming.
“The chemical composition – to the deer, the food value – of a plant varies with different parts of the plant through the year. Most of these changes reflect the need of the plant to provide for renewed growth and ensure its survival. Buds and growing shoots have a higher protein content initially than they do later in the season, when growth ceases and the leaves are functioning. Palatability may also change and it is now well established that the Presence of chemicals at certain times is a protection against insect attack. Such substances may also render them less palatable to deer.
In the temperate regions, the deciduous trees and plants are essentially dormant and lacking foliage during winter. With the approach of spring, activity begins and buds and leaves begin to form , shoots emerge and so on. Late spring and summer are a period of abundance with the rapid growth of plant tissue well able to cope with the predation of browsing and grazing animals. In autumn, the abundance is over and dormancy sets in. For the winter there are only the remains of the grasses and herbs, providing bulk but little nutrition and the occasional flush of grass. The only green plants are the evergreens and the leaves of holly and ivy and withered leaves of bramble.
Against this background of the vegetational cycle we have that of the deer evolved to cope with this cycle in each habitat.”(Raymond E. Chaplin, Deer)
And, against that background, holly (and our next plant, ivy) would be seen as important to hunter gatherers. No holly, means fewer or no deer. Their feeding habits would have been obvious to people who depended on them. This may be the basis of the superstition that cutting down holly trees brings bad luck and that they are associated with goblins and demons. Whatever the reason, it’s good luck for holly blue butterflies (who need holly and ivy leaves), hedgehogs and many small birds who find refuge among the prickles which provide protection all year long.
The tiny inconspicuous flowers of holly can be tricky to spot during their short flowering period; some never do see them. But, they are a treat to the eye and, as a beekeeper, I always look out for them. In May or June, as flamboyant fruit tree’s flowers wither, and often before the clover flowers have appeared, holly opens its fragrant little gems to call in the bees. The flowers issue nectar liberally and so, although the flowering period is only about a month, it is eagerly visited by bees and often bridges a period when nectar is scarce. The Holly pollen is greenish yellow and can be seen on the legs of bees entering hives.
Holly is fairly unusual among plants, and especially trees, in being dioecious. There are male holly trees and female holly trees (though hermaphrodite hollies are not unknown), only the female flowers produce berries which are a feast for birds in winter. In an older Carol known as The Contest of the Ivy and the Holly (clearly a precursor to the well known version) one verse goes…
“Holly hath berries red as any rose,
The forester, the hunter, keep them from the does.”
A doe, as you’ll know is a female deer
The link between holly and deer is quite clear.
But eat those berries any day of the year
And yule fall ill or die, I fear.
Just to be clear, my book of medicinal plants says that holly berries are poisonous to humans and I’ve found no living person who refutes it.
The other St. Nick
The great herbalist, Nicholas Culpeper was in no doubt about the medicinal properties of the berries of holly, which he also called Holm or Hulver Tree. He said they could cure colic and purge the body of gross and clammy phlegm. He added…
“but if you dry the berries, and beat them into a powder, they bind the body and stop fluxes, bloody fluxes and terms in women.”Nicholas Culpeper
Culpeper (born in 1616) was an astrological herbalist. He connected plants with the occult and believed (or knew?) they were governed by particular planets. Holly, he says, is saturnine which certainly fits the connection between Christmas and Saturnalia. Culpeper’s remedies look mostly like gobbledigook today but he certainly observed plants well and was genuinely seeking beneficial properties. When he married into money, Nick administered ‘cures’ from his Spitalfields pharmacy to poor people free of charge. His pharmaceutical approach to botany has a place in the building of modern medicine and his humanitarian approach is a model for the NHS.
Nick recognised, as the seemingly anonymous preface to his book alludes, that…
“Disease is undoubtedly the most fatal enemy of mankind. To prevent its approaches, or to overcome its attacks, is perhaps the most important concern of our lives; and an acquisition that appears only attainable by the most natural and simple means.”Nicholas Culpeper
Something we should certainly take heed of this Christmas, if we’re not a little late.
Ancient hollies – the protectors
Holly, bizarrely, can hold other trees safely away from browsing animals. The Hollies, in the Stiperstones hills in Shropshire, have rowan trees growing in their crowns who’s roots are thought to extend right through the heart-wood of the hollies and into the ground below.
Another quality of holly is its yearlong efficiency as a wind-break. This has been important for protecting crops and livestock as well as places of worship. It may be the actual origin of hedging as it was traditionally used by hunters to channel roe deer into trapped situations in a practice which may predate crop farming.
In his 1945 book, Plants and Beekeeping, Dr. F.N. Howes states it quite plainly…
“It is quite generally accepted that holly makes the best hedge under English conditions in spite of the many plants introduced from other countries over the last 100 years.”Dr. F.N. Howes
Finally, in death, holly has a special place. Holly-wood is among the earliest examples of woodmanship in boardwalks uncovered by archaeologists across fens and wetlands. Holly was pollarded for this reason and as winter fodder right up into the 20th century. It is reputedly the whitest wood of all, and I’ve seen no whiter wood myself, a white Christmas green! It is used for purposes as simple and functional as walking sticks, right through to fine art in carving, inlays, piano and organ keys and marquetry. And, being hard tough and heavy is dyed black and used as an ebony substitute.
Culpeper finished his account of holly by saying…
“The bark of the tree and also the leaves, are excellent good, being used in the fomentations for broken bones, and such members as are out of joint. Pliny saith the branches of the tree defend houses from lightening, and men from witchcraft.”Nicholas Culpeper
Holly wears the crown! But what of her subjects?
“Nay, ivy, nay, it shall not be y-wis [indeed];
Let holly have the maistery, as the manner is.
Holly stands in the hall, fair to behold:
Ivy stands without the door, she is full sore a cold.”
It was important to take holly down before Candlemas as, apparently it starts to attract goblins. This may be why ivy was used in combination but strategically placed outside.
Ivy (Hedera helix)
Pr-ivy to secrets
Whilst ivy, in folk songs, often plays second fiddle, it clearly has a place in folk lore. According to Culpeper’s Herbal, ivy, like holly, is “under the dominion of Saturn.” Ivy has strong associations with the ancient Greeks and romans who used it, tied to a pole to identify places where wine and other alcohol was sold. This later became known as an alepole or alestick. This association with alcohol and merriment may have given our plant a slightly naughty reputation. Leading to purists not using it in their decorations for fear of its meaning being mistranslated.
But earlier still, ivy was believed to be one of the strongest deterrents to house goblins which were at their most malicious at Christmas time. Fascinating though goblins are, you probably wouldn’t want one in your house, so get the ivy up! On the outside of the door is what they seem to be telling us.
Like holly, ivy is special in being geographically estranged from its relatives. As the only British member of Araliaceae family who are otherwise restricted mainly to tropical Asia. It flowers very late in the year (possibly marked on those prehistoric calendars) and, if the flowering coincides with good weather for bees, leads to good bee-survival and early honey crops the following year and thus, from a people perspective, more sugars for mead and wine and festive treats. It may be significant to the use of ivy in Christmas décor, that it can sometimes be found flowering right up to Christmas, but also that its first berries may appear at this time. When most other plants have given up, ivy is there as a sign of life.
Villain or guardian? I think that’s enough ivy puns and, besides, I couldn’t think of one
Setting aside the fact that its berries are toxic to us, ivy is amongst our most misunderstood plants today. In the days of cob and turf building, it would probably strengthen and insulate our homes but, today, it can cause structural damage to less earthy and flexible buildings and so has become feared. It strengthens and supports, river banks, hedges, cliffs and many other vulnerable habitats and features. There is no evidence that it strangles the trees it climbs. Many trees have stood with ivy sentinels for centuries. Ivy’s importance to wildlife cannot be overstated. It provides shelter for small mammals, birds and bats, berries for birds and crucial late forage flowers for bees. Ivy’s role in the health of the ancient countryside, if not fully understood by our prehistoric and medieval ancestors, was certainly strongly suspected.
Part of the negativity towards ivy may be filtering back from north America where, along with ‘English holly’, ‘English ivy’ is recognised as invasive, as were the English who took it there along with their religion funnily enough. Whoops, I meant tragically enough.
Mistletoe (Viscum alba)
As autumn gales and cold winter winds blow the leaves from the trees, in many parts of the country, mistletoe emerges from its hiding place, looking like giant green bird’s nests on the boughs and branches. If you’ll excuse a little pun, mistletoe, like holly and ivy, is out on a bit of limb here in Britain. It is part of, or closely related to, the sandalwood family, and it’s only relative here is the rare… bastard toadflax. Both are semi-parasitic and mistletoe is seen as a pest to apple orchards and timber trees ; cultivated apple trees are, by far, its favourites.
Often, it does no harm to its host, especially if it is harvested. It provides a safe haven for invertebrates to over winter as well as berries for birds including the noisy, and not so common, mistle thrush (Turdus viscivorus). Who is named after its taste for the berries in both its English and scientific names.
Mistletoe’s name origin is obscure. It seems to be derived from the Anglo-Saxon ‘misteltan’ with mist being old German for poo and tan being a twig.
It may well relate to mistle thrush poo which forms the germinating nutriment for the seed left on tree boughs to fight for survival. Hmm, not so romantic now, eh?
Mistle thrushes eat all sorts of berries, including holly, ivy, yew and hawthorn. Mistletoe is dependent almost entirely on birds for seed dispersal. The gluey contents of the berries (linked to the scientific name, Viscum) help the seeds stick to twigs and branches whether they are wiped off a bird’s beak or pop out through its berry processing plant!
Little is truly known of mistletoe’s properties or how it was used In ancient times but it was really used and was certainly significant to some cultures. It was considered to be a cure-all medicine by the early Greek civilizations and also to have fertility properties. These beliefs (or lost knowledge?) were shared with the celts and have persisted through the ages to the present day with kissing under the mistletoe. Recorded tradition has it that a man, kissing a woman under the mistletoe, removed a berry. Once the berries were gone, so was the potency of the mistletoe and there were no more kisses for latecomers. Are anybody else’s lip sore just reading that?
Pliny wrote about druid and gallic ceremonies involving mistletoe, in which priests would cut the plant with a golden sickle (surely the most valuable sickle they had). Allowing it to fall onto a white cloth laid on the ground, after which , two white bulls could be sacrificed. He wrote that mistletoe in a drink was believed to have the power to make barren livestock fertile. It also has a complicated place in Viking mythology associated with rivalry (or murder really) between Loki and Balder. I think Loki might actually be a goblin, he’s so mischievous.
Culpeper (you remember Nick) placed mistletoe within the dominion of the sun but with some affiliation to Jupiter. These are powerful allies and mistletoe has a powerful effect, even on the unsuperstitious; if it might just gain them a magical, perhaps everlasting, kiss.
Nick claimed great healing properties for it and considered that mistletoe from different host plant species (such as pear or oak) gave correspondingly different properties. He added…
” Some have so highly esteemed It for the virtues thereof, that they have called It Lignum Sanctae Crucis, wood of the holy cross…”Nicholas Culpeper
An article in British Wildlife journal states…
“Legend says that the cross of Christ was made from mistletoe wood. As a punishment , the shrub was banned from rooting in the Earth and has to grow on other plants.”
Hmmm; I think to be made of mistletoe, the cross wood have to be a work of basketry and I doubt very much if anyone but an extremist would blame the plant for its human use. Mistletoe is blamed as a plant pest for ‘spoiling’ the wood of the trees it grows on. Again, that’s from a very human perspective and…
if it saves a tree or grove or a wood, it feels to me, not bad, but good.
In truth mistletoe has to hit a balance. Having germinated, its roots penetrate the tree host’s protective layers. Tapping into the xylem vessels with a special adaptation called haustorium. Once plugged in, they extract the mineral laden sap of the tree, by exerting greater osmotic pressure than the tree itself. This can weaken the tree and even kill it through desiccation but in such rare events, the mistletoe dies too.
Like holly, mistletoe is dioecious so only female plants produce berries. Along with, snowdrops and crocuses, it flowers very early (February and March). But often unseen high up there in the branches and when its festive purpose is gone.
To us humans, mistletoe is toxic. We have played and experimented with toxins for medicinal and recreational purposes from antiquity. Greeks, Celts and romans recognised a semen-like appearance in the berries (don’t make me say that again) and considered them to be the fertile genitals of the host tree. Crazy guys, they’d probably experimented too much with toxic substances to think that? This is probably the primary origin of the kissing tradition; its fertility properties I mean. The rule, in Saturnalian season, was that any man could kiss any woman if she stood beneath the mistletoe. And, if she refused, then she’d suffer ‘bad-luck’. Sounds like a man’s rule to me. This probably got out of hand leading to the rule that a berry must be picked for each kiss issued. And when the berries were gone, no more kissing.
The confusion of information on both European and American mistletoe, and the things people get up to, suggest that small amounts don’t usually kill. But it’s variable and can kill and we’ve probably been messing about with it like this for a very long time.
My conclusion, leave it to wildlife who’ll benefit from it. And kiss with your mask on!
In case you are wondering, after apple orchards, the next most mistletoed trees are: common lime and hawthorn. The other native trees that support mistletoe are crab apple, poplar, field maple, willow, ash, rowan, and pedunculate oak .Along with plum and pear trees and a few established non-natives like sycamore and horse chestnut.
So, that’s the big 3, holly, ivy and mistletoe. Probably chosen as much for their inedible winter berries as for their greenery. There are others of course including the elephantine tree in the room….
The Christmas Tree
Pine, fir and spruce are much more recent and show how quickly ‘traditions’ can take hold. Although people had probably been plonking sweet-scented coniferous foliage amongst their decorations for much longer, to keep away evil spirits and goblins, the custom can be traced back all the way to ancient Egypt. The very first Christmas Tree is traditionally credited, in the 1500s, to the polymath and Christian reformer, Martin Luther, in Germany. Walking home one clear evening he was apparently enchanted by the starry sky, twinkling through the evergreen foliage. And decided to recreate it in his home for his family by tying candles to a harvested tree.
The new tradition seems to have spread like wildfire. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert joined the trend in 1840 with a tree at Windsor castle. Some British living rooms had been ablaze with glorious trees for about 50 years before that. Many trees were decorated with coloured paper, gold foil and sweets rather than terrifying Lutherian candles. He seems to have liked scary situations. I’m sure he knew what he was doing as he didn’t die in a house fire.
Robert Herrick was a poet with a twinkle in his eye. He’s probably best known for…
Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, old time is still a flying, and this same flower that smiles today, tomorrow will be dyingRobert Herrick
Fitting words for the start of a new solar cycle. Sometime in the mid-1600s, he wrote ‘Ceremonies for Candlemas Eve’ which gives us some idea of the evergreen traditions and adds a little to our story. Candlemas is 2nd February so it’s a fair while since Christmas, but Herrick says…
“DOWN with the rosemary and bays,
Down with the misletoe ;
Instead of holly, now up-raise
The greener box (for show).
The holly hitherto did sway ;
Let box now domineer
Until the dancing Easter day,
Or Easter’s eve appear.
Then youthful box which now hath graceRobert Herrick
Your houses to renew ;
Grown old, surrender must his place
Unto the crisped yew.”
Rosemary and Bay
Here are rosemary and bay amongst the festive décor of the winter solstice. Both were taken all over Europe by the romans. They revered rosemary as a sacred herb of happiness. The smell of rosemary always cheers me up, so maybe it does get the endorphins going? It was also associated with strengthening the memory as quoth in Hamlet and supported buy Nicholas Culpeper who said …
“it helps a weak memory and quickens the senses.”Nicholas Culpeper
That’s Nick done for now, please give him a round of applause.
Bay was used to decorate victors as well as warding off sickness and that old nuisance, The Devil. In Scandinavia, there was a tradition, on the shortest day, of feasting on a boar’s head. Decorated with a wreath of rosemary and bay, as well as an orange in its mouth. Oranges were associated with sunshine, then as now. They were used as an embodiment of the sun, at its lowest ebb, to encourage and celebrate its forthcoming return. This, apparently, is the origin of the orange at the bottom of your Christmas stocking.
Disappointingly, according to Herrick and the British Wildlife article, from which a lot of my information comes. One of my favourite evergreens and favourite trees is not part of the Christmas and solstice scene despite its apparent suitability. In the last line of the clip above, Herrick says it must come after Candlemas.
So, at last, I’ve found something I have in common with Mariah Carey, because…
All I want for Christmas…
Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night!