Holly and mistletoe candles and bells, I know the message that each of you tells. – Author unknown
For most of us the sight of holly leaves and berries is inextricably linked with Christmas, whether we celebrate this as a secular or a religious festivity. Christmas brings with it many traditions and it is probably the one time when many of us still practice at least a few old folklore customs today.
In pre-Victorian times ‘Christmas trees’ meant holly bushes.
Though holly was, and still is, brought into the house for its shiny green leaves and berries, which reflect the light and add colour to the dark days of Yule, it has another significance as well.
Christian symbolism connected the prickly leaves with Jesus’ crown of thorns and the berries with the drops of blood shed for humanity’s salvation, as is related, for example, in the Christmas carol, ‘The Holly and the Ivy’.
Like other evergreens, holly has represented immortality ever since people began to look to plants for inspiration. It has been regarded as a plant of good omen since ‘early times’.
It is now widely accepted by scholars that ‘early times’ lies somewhere between ‘When Adam Was a Lad’ and ‘Donkeys Years Ago’!
If you thought holly was just holly? Think again.
There are more than 800 species!
Our familiar Christmas sort, Ilex aquifolium, is native throughout western and southern Europe.
Holly makes for a very prickly barrier, and is good in a mixed hedge of native species such as hawthorn and blackthorn.
Hollies are either male or female. Only females have berries, though a few varieties are self-fertile. The male and female flowers of the holly tree are produced on separate plants. Therefore to ensure berry production, both male and female plants need to be planted. The male tree must be within 100 feet of a female tree of the same species in order for bees to successfully pollinate the female flowers and thereby produce the bright red berries that holly is known for.
The berries are poisonous to humans but not to birds, who eat them and so aid in the dispersal of the seeds. The wood of the holly is creamy white, dense, and has an even grain. It was formerly used for carving inlay and engraving. The twigs yield birdlime, and holly is good firewood even when green.
Holly and mistletoe candles and bells, I know the message that each of you tells.
Kissing under the mistletoe has long been a part of Christmas tradition.
But just what is mistletoe and how did it’s association with Christmas evolve?
Mistletoe is interesting botanically because it is a partial parasite.
As a parasitic plant, it grows on the branches or trunk of a tree and actually sends out roots that penetrate into the tree and take up nutrients.
But mistletoe is also capable of growing on its own; like other plants it can produce its own food by photosynthesis.
Mistletoe, however, is more commonly found growing as a parasitic plant, it is a green shrub with small, yellow flowers and white, sticky berries that are poisonous.
It is commonly seen on apple but only rarely on oak trees.
The common name of the plant is derived from the ancient belief that mistletoe was propagated from bird droppings. This belief was related to the then-accepted principle that life could spring spontaneously from dung.
It was observed in ancient times that mistletoe would often appear on a branch or twig where birds had left droppings.
The name ‘Mistletoe’ is derived from the Anglo-Saxon words for dung and twig.
So, mistletoe means ‘dung-on-a-twig’!
In fact mistletoe can be spread by seeds, which have passed through the digestive tract of birds. Also the sticky berry seeds of the mistletoe tend to cling to the bills of birds. When the birds clean their bills by rubbing them against the branches or bark of trees, the seeds are deposited.
From the earliest times mistletoe has been considered one of the most magical, mysterious, and sacred plants, and was thought to be a bestower of life and fertility.
It was gathered at both mid-summer and winter solstices, and the custom of using mistletoe to decorate houses at Christmas is a survival of the Druid and other pre-Christian traditions. (Mistletoe is still ceremonially plucked on mid-summer eve in some Celtic and Scandinavian countries).
In the Middle Ages and later, branches of mistletoe were hung from ceilings to ward off evil spirits. They were placed over house and stable doors to prevent the entrance of witches.
Kissing under the mistletoe is first found associated with primitive marriage rites.
In some parts of England the Christmas mistletoe is burned on twelfth night lest all the boys and girls who have kissed under it never marry.
And for those who wish to observe the correct etiquette: a man should pluck a berry when he kisses a woman under the mistletoe, and when the last berry is gone, there should be no more kissing!