Christmas Greenery - The Legends of Natural Decorations
Pagans and Christians
"Christmas is not a time nor a season, but a state of mind. To cherish peace and goodwill, to be plenteous in mercy, is to have the real spirit of Christmas."
Many of the natural evergreens we have around Christmas time were used by our pagan ancestors. They were used for decorations both inside and outside the home. When Christianity took over from older beliefs, festivals remained but with a Christian interpretation. Many of these ancient traditions are maintained when we use natural decorations at the festive season.
The spirits of vegetation
The winter solstice is one of the oldest pagan festivals, celebrating the re-birth of the sun. During the celebrations, offerings were made to the spirits of trees and plants - known collectively as the spirits of vegetation.
To acknowledge the spirits, ivy was placed outside the doorway. Inside you would spread holly, laurel, bay and rosemary. Special attention was paid to the hearth area as the centre of the household. Your home was now protected from the evil and mischievous spirits who were forever trying to gain entrance in the dark winter months.
In addition, because the plants are evergreen they were seen as a symbol of immortality and renewal. The early Christian fathers later adopted these plants as symbols of Jesus. The holly represented the crown of thorns, the berries - Christ’s blood.
Christmas spirits and bad luck
We have all heard of the bad luck that will follow if we leave our decorations up too long after Christmas. This belief originated many centuries ago when only natural items were used around the home.
It was believed you would attract misfortune if you left your decorations up after Twelfth Night. This was due to the spirits of vegetation sheltering within the foliage. Once the festivals were over the spirits were released back into the open. If they were not given their freedom they would show displeasure by destructive behaviour towards everyone in the home.
Twelfth Night had been celebrated since the middle ages and was just as important as Christmas Day. It was celebrated on the 5th of January, marking the end of the Christmas season.
On this day a special cake was baked and inside was placed a dried bean and a dried pea. When a man discovered the bean he became king for that day and the lady who found the pea was queen. Even if they were usually lowly servants, the tradition was strictly adhered to and they would be treated like royalty.
'All-heal' or Mistletoe
We all recognise mistletoe as the pretty plant that we kiss under at Christmas time.
In the past it was the sacred plant of the Druids who called it 'all-heal' because of its ability to cure many ailments. It was also a good protector against black witchcraft and evil spirits.
This plant was held in such high esteem that if enemies met near where it was growing they would stop fighting and offer a sign of friendship towards each other. The practice of kissing under the mistletoe was probably a natural progression from this and a ritual mainly practiced in Britain.
The mistletoe was developed in later centuries into a beautiful decoration called a 'kissing bough’. It was circular in shape, covered with various evergreens. Inside the circle apples were placed with brightly coloured ribbons. On the outside were lighted candles. The mistletoe took centre place by being hung underneath the decoration. As today, anyone caught under the mistletoe is obliged to offer a kiss.
Christmas Trees and Wreaths
The evergreen wreaths adorning our homes at the festive season date back to Roman times.
As part of their New Year celebrations the Romans would exchange presents. These were often in the form of evergreen branches known as strenae. The word comes from the Roman goddess Strenia who was responsible for giving good health to her patrons.
One of our main decorations of course is the Christmas tree - introduced by Prince Albert to Victorian society in the 19th century. Germany had by then a good tradition of decorating a tree both inside and outside the home. The practice can be traced back to both Latvia and Estonia in the 15th century.
However, the practice of decorating a tree goes back once again to our pagan ancestors. They did not cut down trees to decorate them - this would have been too destructive and wasteful. Instead the decorations were brought to the tree in the form of hand crafted items in wood and perhaps even metal.
According to some sources, including the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the use of evergreen trees and wreaths can be traced back as far as ancient Egypt, China and the Hebrew people.
In addition, tree worship was common among the Celts and other European tribes. Evergreens were normally used as a defence against evil spirits and demons.
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From Past to Present
The history and legends surrounding the use of greenery at Christmas adds an interesting depth to our choice of decorations. Knowing their origins can add a certain mystique to the home.
The Festive Season can also evoke uncanny energies and feelings, as if from nowhere. By placing evergreens around the home, we may stir up a little of the magic from the past. We may even get a good luck wish thrown our way from a grateful vegetation spirit - as long as we don't forget to release him by Twelfth Night!
© 2010 Helen Murphy Howell
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