Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Sacred Evergreens

For pagans, the winter solstice was a frightening time. The sun seemed to abandon the earth to perpetual darkness. In an effort to reassure themselves of the sun’s return in the spring, the Celts brought evergreen sprigs and boughs indoors. Chief among the plants were holly, ivy and mistletoe.

During Saturnalia, the Roman winter solstice celebration, they honored the god Saturn by decorating their homes and businesses with sacred ho
lly garlands and wreaths. They also gave their friends holly wreaths festooned with candles, clay figures and sweets.

Mistletoe—the magical “golden bough” carried by Aeneas and adorning Diana’s sanctuary at Nemi—also figured heavily in these celebrations. No Saturnalia was complete without a kiss beneath the mistletoe to aid fertility. Romans drank it as an aphrodisiac, and used mistletoe to cure cancer and tumors.

Ivy was sacred to Bacchus, the god of wine and revelry. Romans painted his likeness and carved him with a crown of ivy on his head. Bacchus played an integral role in Saturnalia festivities.

The Vikings believed t
he sun was reborn at the winter solstice. They celebrated with a twelve-day Yuletide festival throughout which they burned the massive truck of an oak tree. But Norsemen particularly revered the mistletoe that grew on that mighty oak. According to their mythology, mistletoe could resurrect the dead. It also was a symbol of peace. To encounter an enemy beneath a tree upon which mistletoe grew was the equivalent of meeting under a white flag.

The Sacred Grove was at the center of the Celts’ spiritual world. They believed their race sprang from it. And at the center of the Grove stood the oak tree, which represented the cyclical nature of life. The oak ruled the portion of the year when the sun shone the longest, while holly ruled the darker side. It was considered bad luck to cut down a holly tree, or to burn its green branches. The Druids advised people to take holly into their home during the winter as shelter for fairies and elves. But it had to be removed by Imbolc in February or the homeowner risked misfortune. The Celts believed holly had protective qualities against poison and ghosts. If one threw a stick of holly at a wild animal, it would become docile. To hang a branch outside the house protected the dwelling from lightning.

Mistletoe was particular sacred to them. Five days after the new moon following the Winter Solstice—roughly New Year’s Eve/Day—the Druids brought two white bulls to an oak tree in the Sacred Grove. A priest in a white robe climbed the tree and, using a golden knife, cut mistletoe from it. The sprigs were not allowed to touch the ground because, by its very nature, mistletoe was neither of heaven or earth. The bulls were then sacrificed and the mistletoe distributed. The sprigs were taken home and hung over the door as protection against thunder and lightning, and to ensure the fertility of crops and animals in the new year.

Mistletoe was the symbol of the Oak King and believed by the Celts to magically grow from the excrement of the thrush which ate it. (Mistel is the Anglo-Saxon word for dung, and tan is the word for twig—dung on a twig.) Pagans took mistletoe as a ritual drink. Its pollen was found in the stomach of an Iron Age cadaver excavated from a peat bog at Lindow Moss in 1984.

Oaks are not the only home for mistletoe. It attaches to fruit trees, particular the apple, and can be found around York on lime, poplar and hawthorn trees. Until the 18th century, York Cathedral conducted a Mistletoe Service on Christmas Eve that granted universal pardon to anyone who attended.

Irrespective of York’s Mistletoe Service, the evergreen was banned from churches as a pagan symbol. Christians believed Christ’s cross was fashioned from a mistletoe tree and that God’s revenge was to turn it into a parasitic plant. Nevertheless, mistletoe continued to be used as a secular holiday decoration, particularly in the kissing bough.

The Holly and the Ivy – ancient battle of the sexes

Where holly protected against witches and ghosts, ivy drew bad luck. It wasn’t allowed indoors except around Christmas, and then only if accompanied by holly. The word holly is an adulteration of the word holy. Christians believed holly’s prickly spines symbolized Christ’s crown of thorns, its red berries His drops of blood. During Henry VI’s reign, every house was decked with holly and ivy in the winter, especially at Christmas.

The Contest of the Holly and the Ivy
, a ca
rol from that period, came to exemplify long-held beliefs that holly was a masculine plant and ivy a feminine one. In the holly and ivy carol, holly is depicted as a virile hunter, while ivy is the archetypal female—submissive and shy as she “stands without the door.”

holly and his merry men they dance and they sing
Ivy and her maidens they weep and they wring…

The nature of the holly brought into a house at Christmas was believed to determine who held sway in the new year. Holly with really prickly spines meant the man of the house would dominate. Smoother holly meant the woman of the house would have her way.

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