The plants associated with Christmas are symbols of eternity from midwinter festivals of past cultures.
Ancient peoples were fascinated by evergreens’ ability to maintain green leaves throughout long bleak months.
The winter solstice was the beginning of the Roman festival of Saturnalia, a week of feasting and dancing, with houses decorated with evergreens as tokens of friendship. Pagan symbolism later blended with Christian traditions.
The British native holly is Ilex Aquifolium, from the Latin ‘aquila’ (an eagle), indicating sharp prickles.
A smoother-leaved holly, Ilex Altaclerensis, was first identified at Highclere Castle, (Downton Abbey), Berkshire.
Holly was used in Britain to protect the homes of our forefathers from evil spirits (including lightning!) and it was considered unlucky having no holly indoors at Christmastide. It was palatable to livestock despite its toughness and used extensively for winter fodder in medieval times. Hollies provide excellent stock-proof hedging and wind shelter for cattle. Bunches of holly were once used to sweep chimneys. The red berries only grow on the female species, and are efficiently spread by birds.
Nowadays there are many species of cultivated hollies, some with variegated leaves.
Mistletoe is a semi-parasitic evergreen plant which grows between the branches of trees, mostly around Worcestershire. The Druids regarded mistletoe as having magical properties, as it kept dead-looking trees alive through winter months!
Folklore believed that mistletoe berries made barren animals fertile, and was a remedy for poisons. The fertility link persists to this day with kissing underneath bunches of mistletoe at Christmas!
The berries are poisonous to children in spite of ancient medicinal uses. Gardeners find it difficult to get mistletoe growing in their garden trees.
These symbolic Christmas evergreens remind us of the everlasting birth-life-death cycle and are a reminder that the Earth never dies, but merely sleeps through midwinter.
Todmorden in Bloom hope all readers had a happy Christmas and hope more Todmordians will make a new year’s resolution to help us “green” the town in 2014.
For more information call Norman on 01706 812205 or Jean on 01706 817492 - or see our new website at www.todmordeninbloom.com