As the seasons change from autumn to winter, we can’t help but warm our thoughts with the traditions and symbols associated with the holidays. Some of these ideas date so far back in our culture and in others that we have forgotten from whence they came. From a naturalist's perspective (and this one also happens to be a fan of natural folklore), it's interesting to take a look at where some of our botanical symbols originated.
Evergreens, in general, speak for themselves. In the coldest, darkest days of winter, their boughs are verdant and steadfast. Beneath a weighty burden of snow, their sloping branches endure, their wax-coated needles boast of life that yet stirs in the forest. They are "ever green," a symbol of eternal life, and their cones provide a source of food for animals when other sources of nourishment are scarce. The Romans decorated them outdoors, and in the Middle Ages on December 24, they were fitted with apples in representation of Adam and Eve’s Tree of Paradise. The first recorded "Christmas Tree" was in Pennsylvania in 1747. At the time, the decorated "evergreens" were wooden pyramids covered in pine boughs that people erected inside and adorned with candles.
Everyone should plant a holly tree outside their homes, because this evergreen can turn water to ice, protect against lightning, and ward off witches. Depending on whether you brought smooth leaves or prickly leaves into your house first, you could determine who would "rule" the household for that year (wives were "smooth," husbands were "prickly"). Pre-Christian beliefs spoke of the Holly King, who ruled half the year from the summer solstice to the winter solstice. On a winter holiday a boy would wear a suit of holly and a girl a suit of ivy, and they would parade around the village in hopes of bringing nature through the winter to support another year of crop fertility. Later, Christian beliefs associated holly's sharp leaves with the crown of thorns, and its berries represented the blood on the cross.
Mistletoe, that romantic, hemi-parasitic plant symbolizes life and fertility. In Europe it was used as an aphrodisiac. The Druids would cut mistletoe from oak trees during the summer and winter solstices, hanging it in their doorways to ward off evil spirits and witches (there seemed to be a lot of these back then). The tradition of kissing beneath a sprig of mistletoe began as early as the ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia, growing in popularity through the 18th century. After all, the one you kiss could end up being your future spouse! For every kiss, a berry is plucked, and once the berries are gone, the mistletoe’s powers have been spent.
While some folklore seems absurd or outdated, traditions surrounding our natural symbols continue to present day. Some traditions hold fast to ideas that still bear meaning in our lives, and others are observed just for fun. Whatever you believe, here’s wishing you warmth, happiness and good health this winter season!
—Stefanie Verish, Naturalist, Look About Lodge