Saturday, December 7, 2013

Day 7- The Language of Christmas

Welcome to Day 7 of Advent Countdown. Today we'll be looking at some of the meanings and myths surrounding 'traditional' Christmas plants. 

There's quite a lot of history when it comes to plants or flowers. Throughout the past, multiple cultures, religions and races used them for many different reasons. Be they sacred, medicinal or symbolic. Let's get into it then, shall we?

First up: holly. Holly is so common (at least in the UK) that it is almost symbolic of winter. Various meanings are associated with the spiky bush. Some of these include defence, domestic happiness and foresight. Despite it's protective meaning, holly berries are incredibly poisonous. In fact, eating only twenty berries will kill you. 

Many cultures are tied with holly. Christians believed that Christ's crown was made of holly. The berries were once yellow, but his blood turned them the deep red they are today. 

Before the Christians, the Romans used holly in pagan worship. Holly was the sacred plant of the god Saturn, and was used during the Saturnalia festival honouring him. They gave each other wreaths made of holly, and centuries later, the Christians hung the wreaths during December (when they celebrated the birth of Christ)- in order to avoid persecution. As Christianity took over, the pagan association faded and holly became a symbol of Christmas. 

Druids used to put sprigs of holly in their hair- as they believed the vibrant plant protected the earth in winter, when everything else died. 

In Medieval Europe it was seen as a symbol of good fortune. A holly tree planted near the home was said to protect from storms, and sprigs of it would protect the wearer from witchcraft.

In West England, people would tie a sprig to their bedposts to bring sweet dreams. 

In the nineteenth century holly was used to reduce fevers, and folk medicine believed that beating someone with holly until they bled would cure chilblains. Not something 
I would've liked to experience.

If you think holly has a lot of history, wait until you see the next one.

Mistletoe- arguably one of the most iconic Christmas 'plants'. It is, in fact, a parasite- forced to live by growing and feeding of others. Meanings associated with mistletoe include: affection and surmounting all difficulties. 

The French believed it was once a tree, but that Christ's cross was created from mistletoe, and it was forever cursed to live as a parasite. In Brittany, mistletoe is called, 'Herbe de la Croix'- literally 'grass/plant of the cross'.

Mistletoe has been used as a charm for protection, love, fertility, hunting, health and exorcism. The origin of the name is debatable, but one theory states that it came from the ancient belief that life would spring from scat. Often the berries would grow on a twig or branch that a bird had left droppings on. The literal meaning comes from the Anglo-Saxon 'mistle' meaning 'dung', and 'tan' meaning 'twig'. So mistletoe literally means, 'dung on a twig'.

It is intertwined with European folklore. Romans, Celts and Germanic peoples of the fourth century B.C. all called it 'Golden Bough'. In Celtic languages, mistletoe translates as 'allheal'. They believed it not only cured all ailments, but could also void any poisons, protected from witchcraft, made any who consumed it prolific (human or animal) and protected from ghosts. It was a symbol of good luck. They would hang it in their homes to ward off evil, and hang it above a baby's cradle to protect from fairy theft.

For the Druids it was sacred if it grew on an oak tree. They believed a tincture of mistletoe would make barren animals fertile, and would only cut it when they had 'dreams' to do so, and then only with a golden knife. If they did not have a vision before the mistletoe fell to the ground, it was a premonition of hard times ahead. 

In Norse mythology, it is the sacred plant of Frigga- goddess of love. Her son, Baldur- god of the sun- had a dream of death. In a panic, Frigga travelled the world, talking to all the plants and animals- begging them to protect her son. But Loki- the trickster- wanted harm to befall Baldur, and knew of one small 'plant' Frigga had missed- mistletoe. He tipped an arrow with it, and handed it to Hoder- the blind god of winter- who shot the arrow at Baldur, killing him. The sky turned dark and the Earth cried for the fallen sun god. For three days, all elements came together to try to revive him. It was Frigga who finally triumphed. It is said her tears became the white berries, and that in her joy she kissed anyone who passed beneath the tree on which it grew. It was decreed that whoever stood beneath mistletoe was protected from harm, and would instead receive a kiss- a token of love. 

In eighteenth century England, a woman standing beneath mistletoe could not refuse a kiss. Any woman who did not receive a kiss by the end of the night, would not marry that year. 

In Scandinavia, it was seen as a plant of peace. 

Finally we come to ivy, a symbol of wedded love, fidelity, friendship and affection. In pagan folklore it was a symbol of eternal life- which was carried on through Christianity. 

Holly is considered the symbol of man, and ivy of woman. When placed together, they are said to bring harmony between a husband and wife. Greek priests would gift a newlywed couple a wreath of of ivy, to symbolise fidelity. 

Some of its medicinal purposes include: treatment for swelling, sores, dandruff and other skin ailments, and in folk medicine it was used to treat corns. 

So there you have it. Some history and meaning behind three of the most 'Christmas associated' plants. I didn't include any evergreen trees, but if you're interested pine and spruce are a symbol of hope, and fir of time. I always found meanings behind plants and flowers fascinating, and I hope you did to. 

See you tomorrow for Day 8 of Advent Countdown.


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