THE YULETIDE season may send most of us into a shopping frenzy but Nature and Christmas have gone hand-in-hand from the very beginning.
The early Christians were a savvy bunch, recognising the need to adapt existing Pagan customs to help ease the transition for converts adopting a new set of beliefs. And that’s why there’s so much greenery in our homes at this time of year!
Nature and Christmas – the holly
The Celtic Druids used to put up holly to protect their homes against malevolent spirits during dark winter months. They viewed it as a king of winter. While most other plants entered a death-like state during the winter, the holly, with its bright red berries, was at its most potent.
For Christians, the holly tree would come to symbolise the crucifixion of Christ, with its thorny leaves and blood-red berries, associated with his suffering.
Mistletoe was also thought to have the power to keep evil spirits at bay, but was also credited by Pagans with having the power to heal diseases and bring good luck to those who found it.
However, it was the Vikings who linked the mistletoe with affairs of the heart after their Goddess of fertility, Frigga, ruled that the plant should symbolise love. That’s quite a departure from their reputation as violent marauders!
The Christmas tree
Pagans used the branches of evergreen trees to decorate their home during the Winter Solstice as a reminder that spring would return and bring life back into the land after months of dormancy.
It would be many centuries before fir trees would become forever associated with Christmas. It’s widely believed that the 16th Century reformer Martin Luther was the first person to bring a tree into his home for Christmas. He added candles in an effort to capture the beauty of the twinkling stars.
Over time, German households added fruit and sweet treats to their trees while emigrants would later introduce the tradition to the rest of the world.
The Yule log
We can credit the Scandinavians with introducing the rest of us to the Yule log. During the winter solstice they would decorate a huge log with greenery and ancient carvings. They would then burn most of the wood, but would save some to protect their home in the year ahead.
Today, a candle is placed on a much smaller log to re-enact the Viking tradition of burning its predecessor.
The wren, the wren
The wren may be one of Europe’s smallest birds, but it has a pretty big role to play in our Christmas traditions.
It’s said that a wren’s singing led to the discovery of St Stephen’s hiding place by his pursuers, resulting in his stoning to death. The bird’s alleged act of treachery inspired the tradition of ‘hunting the wren’ on St Stephen’s Day, every December 26.
Unfortunately, in the past, wrens would be hunted, killed or captured by groups of young fellas in the run-up to Christmas. The birds would be paraded on top of a pole through Irish communities while wrenboys knocked on doors and demanded money (refusal could lead to bad luck in the year ahead). Luckily, today’s wrenboys, or mummers as they’re called in Fermanagh, are more interested in celebrating a tradition rather than avenging St Stephen so our wrens remain unharmed!
Unlike the wren, the robin’s role at Christmas role is a benevolent one. This popular native Irish bird is said to have earned his red breast after pulling a bloodied barb from Christ’s crown of thorns during the crucifixion.
Another story suggests that the robin’s breast was scorched as he protected the baby Jesus from the heat of a blazing fire after his mother Mary was distracted by the innkeeper’s chatty wife!
The Victorians first started using images of the robin on their Christmas cards during the 19th Century and they remain a popular subject for cards and Yuletide ornaments to this day.
So you see, nature had a hand in people’s winter traditions long before shopping queues and boozy office parties, reminding us that spring is just around the corner!
Finally, if you fancy getting into the Christmas ‘spirits’ then check out our recipes for blackberry whiskey and sloe gin – the perfect Yuletide beverages! You can also visit our blog and follow us on Facebook and Twitter by simply clicking here.