Last Friday I discussed legends (variations on a theme, really) associated with our most popular Christmas blooming plants, the poinsettia, the Christmas rose and the Christmas Cactus (for more on care of these, look Here for poinsettia and here for Christmas Cactus.)
Today I’ll discuss some of the evergreens and how they became traditions in decorating. These are actually the more interesting stories because they come down to us from all regions and traditions.
One of my favorites is the mistletoe. Although I wouldn’t dream of having “real” mistletoe in my home because its berries could be toxic to my pets, I do hang a cut paper version and a lovely glass ornament version every year. I guess I like the idea that it can be “protective.”
The legend comes down to us from Norse mythology. It tells of the goddess Frigga who had a beloved son. Despite her best efforts at protecting him, the god Loki intervenes and her son was killed. Winter came to the earth as a result and darkness and drear covered the land for 3 days until the son was revived with the help of mistletoe. Its berries supposedly turned white from her tears of gratitude and from that time on, anyone under it would not be harmed and would receive a kiss (hence our modern tradition) as a token of love. I adapted this tale from the much longer version shown at World of Christmas.
Holly, especially, and ivy to a lesser extent, play a role in our holiday celebrations as well. Holly has a religious role as well in one of its legends, supposedly sprouting leaves out of season in Bethlehem to hide the Holy Family. Holly legends and facts can be found at this Suite101 site.
Ivy bears a less well-known role, and perhaps used only because of its association with the song “The Holly and The Ivy.” Some legends of both holly and ivy are found in the song lyrics. Other legends associate ivy with ancient Druids, Celts and Greeks who decorated with greenery, much as we do, to dispel winter’s gloom. There is also some thought that “holly’ was perceived as “masculine” and “ivy” as “feminine and the old song–and indeed the plants–discuss that relationship. More about that here, as well as the song lyrics, from About.com.
Finally of course, there are the conifers or needled evergreens we decorate with in all manner of shapes and forms: wreaths, swags, garlands, centerpieces and of course the tree. Some of this again goes back to ancients of all nationalities who brought the greenery into their homes to dispel winter’s gloom (and who blames them?). EWTN has an interesting variation on the idea that the Germans first brought Christmas trees into use with its tale of St. Boniface cutting down the oak sacred to the Druids and decreeing that a small fir that had somehow escaped nearby when the oak was taken down be brought into homes instead. You can read all the details of that legend here.
But of course other legends are associated with our evergreens, including the wreath. Wreaths have of course been used for centuries, most notably by the Romans and the Greeks, who used them as symbols of victory ( tradition still found in the modern Olympics). The older legends date back again to germanic tribes who put evergreen wreaths on their homes. It continues today both in secular Christmas decorating and in the Advent wreath. Read more here from the site History of Christmas.
Finally there’s the yule log, a purely pagan tradition that still survives today in HD on some cable channels, which will stream a live feed of a burning fireplace! It may sound corny but growing up we didn’t have a fireplace and did watch the local (decidedly non-HD) version on TV. I’ve heard there are DVDs available as well today for those who want to re-create that effect.
The Yule log dates back to the Vikings, who brought logs into their home for prosperity and to chase away the evil spirits. The log had to burn from the solstice on. If it for some reason went out, that was considered a very bad sign. You can read more from a post I did in 2010 on the yule log here.
With all of that said, for those that celebrate the holiday, I wish you a “Merry Christmas.”