Ah, holly. How I miss the gloss of your pristine leaves, the lipstick-red of your berries. For twenty-five years in England, no Christmas was complete without you in my centrepiece and adorning my picture frames. Every (of course homemade) Christmas pudding bore a little sprig. We marked the birth of our daughter by the planting of a holly tree. Buried beneath its roots is a silver filagree box with a rose quartz lid containing symbols of our love and hope for her life. Out of natural curiosity and love for these icons of an English forest walk, I came to learn much about the spiritual significance and history of the holly, the yew, the oak and the mistletoe, the ivy and the laurel: greens we love and continue to associate with this festival. But do you know why? With the passing of the Winter Solstice, I welcome these festive greens once again into my home and contemplate their meaning.
The winter festival was the Celtic festival of the winter solstice. Alban Arthuan, or Winter Solstice, also known as Yule, is the shortest day and longest night of the year. For ancient peoples, the Winter Solstice was an awesome, mysterious, and powerful time. “Solstice” is derived from two Latin words: “sol” meaning sun, and “sistere,” to cause to stand still. The festival at Winter Solstice was a supplication for, and celebration of, the return of the light to the world. Many folk holidays and celebrations were absorbed into Christian culture in the early days of Christianity to make the new religion more acceptable, in the same way that Christian churches were built on sites sacred to the native peoples of the area. Like other Celtic festivals, its meaning has long been forgotten by most people, and only the habitual practices remain. In much of the world today, its rituals have been incorporated into Christmas, but disillusionment with the over-commercialisation of Christmas, and a growing understanding and reconnection with the earth that nurtures us has inspired many people to re-examine the ancient roots of this festival time.
The sacred greens used in Christmas festivities we know today far predate the advent of Christianity to the western world. Their use dates far, far back into history, into pagan beliefs and practices that date as much as 30,000 years before Christianity.
Evergreens such as holly, laurel and ivy signify eternity and everlasting life. The use of a wreath of greenery dates from this time, and was traditionally made of evergreens, holly, and ivy. The wreath’s circle symbolizes the wheel of the year and the completion of another cycle. Holly represents the female element; ivy represents the male. Like evergreens, holly was believed to contain a mysterious life force because it bore berries in the middle of winter. Both holly and mistletoe were hung in doorways of temples and homes to invoke powers of fertility in those who stood beneath and kissed, causing the spirits of the god and goddess to enter them. Both holly and ivy were thought to have magical properties, and were used as protection against negative elements. Mistletoe was a sacred healing plant used by the Celts and Druids, known as ‘all-heal’.
Much has been written in modern parlance about the ‘shocking’ pagan origins of our practices during this most Christian of festivals. I don’t see it that way. The human race long predates the birth of Christ (or indeed any other object of human worship), and this wonderfully rich tapestry of human history is a great gift of continuity with our past and our forebears. I honour and treasure the ancient in our modern practices, and celebrate the connection they help me to feel to thousands upon thousands of years of human history. I smile to see them appear in the stonework wrought by local craftsmen who worked to build the great gothic cathedral monuments to Christianity. There is no shock, no disrespect, no mischief involved in continuing to respond to these most primal of human needs: To connect; to hope; to love and to believe. Long may they continue. Holly, you will always have a place in my home.