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The Holly and the Mistletoe: Ancient Roots of Christmas Symbols

The Holly and the Mistletoe: Ancient Roots of Christmas Symbols


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Christmas is a very popular holiday tradition that is celebrated by some 2 billion people worldwide. This popular celebration is of course linked closely to Christianity and is intended to honor the birth of Jesus Christ, but people in nations with little or no Christian traditions are also celebrating this holiday in increasing numbers and, surprisingly, most of the Christmas customs we see practiced around the world do not have their roots in Christianity.

The Christmas Wreath

For many people, placing a wreath on the front door of the home at Christmas time is part of the festive decoration and Christmas cheer. But its meaning runs much deeper. For centuries, wreaths have represented the unending cycle of life and have been symbols of victory and honor.

Ancient Druids, Celts, and Romans used evergreen branches made into wreaths in their winter solstice celebrations. As early as 1444, wreaths were used as Christmas decorations in London. In 16th-century Germany, evergreen branches were intertwined in a circular shape to symbolize God's love, which has no beginning and no end.

A Christmas wreath. Ancient Druids, Celts, and Romans used to create wreaths out of evergreen branches too. (markobe /Adobe Stock)

Holy Christmas Holly

Ancient cultures believed that bringing green branches into the home and using them in rituals would ensure the return of vegetation at the end of winter. Holly was thought to be magical because of its shiny leaves and its ability to bear fruit in winter. Some believed it contained syrup that cured coughs and others hung it over their beds to produce good dreams. It was also a popular gift among the Romans as part of their Saturnalia festivities.

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Several centuries after the birth of Christ, Christians began celebrating the birth of Christ in December while the Romans were still holding their pagan celebrations. By decorating their homes with holly as the Romans did, Christians avoided detection and persecution.

The early Christian Church associated holly with various legends about its role in Christ's crucifixion. According to one legend, Christ's crown of thorns was formed from holly. The legend claimed that the holly berries were originally white, but were stained red by Christ's blood. So for ancient Christians, the sharply pointed holly leaves became symbols of the thorns in Christ's crown and the red berries drops of his blood.

Holly was thought to be magical because of its shiny leaves and its ability to bear fruit in winter. ( zichrini /Adobe Stock)

Why Do We Kiss Under the Mistletoe at Christmas?

Mistletoe was another plant that was considered to be sacred among both Druids and Romans. It was believed to have healing powers and the ability to ward off evil. It was also thought to be the connection between earth and the heavens because it grew without roots, as if by magic.

This is also a symbol of peace – soldiers who found themselves under mistletoe quickly put down their weapons and made a temporary truce. In a related custom, ancient Britons hung mistletoe in their doorways to keep evil away. Those who entered the house safely were given a welcome kiss, starting the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe.

Why do we kiss under mistletoe at Christmas? ( Archivist /Adobe Stock)

The Yule Log – Do You Burn it or Eat it?

In many countries, especially in Europe, it is common to light what is referred to as a Yule log at Christmas time. Cakes shaped like logs are served and called Yule cakes. The modern Christmas celebration itself is sometimes even referred to as Yule, as a traditional festival descending from a Pre-Christian midwinter Germanic or Nordic countries connected to the celebration of the Wild Hunt, the god Odin, and the pagan Anglo-Saxon Mōdraniht.

The word ‘Yule’ itself seems to descend from jól – found in many languages: Common Germanic, Old Norse, Icelandic, among others. References to burning a Yule log at Christmas (or Yuletide) appear in the 17th century, but the original origins are unclear. Earlier in history, the pagan Celts, Teutons, and Druids burned massive logs in winter ceremonies in celebration of the sun.

When Christianity emerged in Europe, the Yule log remained popular. In order to justify this ancient pagan ritual, Church officials gave it a new significance - that of the light that came from Heaven when Christ was born.

The huge block, or log, of wood would be burned at one end for a duration of 12 days — The Twelve Days of Christmas, also known as Twelvetide— a festive Christian celebration of the Nativity of Jesus. Much feasting and merrymaking was had, similar to ancient practices.

The Yule log would burn 12 days. ( vitaliy_melnik /Adobe Stock)

The wood wouldn’t be burned completely, but taken off the fire with the intent to burn the same block the next year, and so on. During the rest of the year, the charred wood log would bring good fortune to the household. It was believed to ward off toothache, lightning, fire, mildew, and other misfortunes.


Mistletoe and Christmas holly

When Balder, the son of the Norse goddess Frigga, was killed by an arrow made of mistletoe by Loki, and evil spirit, she wept tears of white berries which brought him back to life. Overjoyed, Frigga blessed the plant and bestowed to kiss all who passed beneath it.

Mistletoe was held sacred by the Norse, the Celtic Druids and the North American Indians. The Druid priests would cut mistletoe from an oak tree with a golden sickle. The branches had to be caught before they touched the ground. They then divided the branches into many sprigs and distributed them to the people, who hung them over doorways as protection against thunder, lightning and other evils. The folklore continued over the centuries. It was believed that a sprig placed in a baby’s cradle would protect the child from goblins. Giving a sprig to the first cow calving after New Year would protect the entire herd.

Holly was the sacred plant of Saturn and was used at the Roman Saturnalia festival to honor him. Romans gave one another holly wreaths and carried them about decorating images of Saturn with it. It was used as folk medicine for toothache, measles and dog bites.

Mistletoe before it becomes a wreath

Mistletoe and holly at Christmas
To avoid persecution during the Roman pagan festival of Saturnalis, the early Christians decked their homes with Saturnalia holly. As Christian numbers increased and their customs prevailed, holly and mistletoe lost their pagan associations and became symbols of Christmas.

Peace and joy… and kisses
Mistletoe is a symbol for peace and joy. The idea originated in the ancient times of the Druids: whenever enemies met under the mistletoe in the forest, they had to lay down their arms and observe a truce until the next day. From this comes the custom of hanging a ball of mistletoe from the ceiling and exchanging kisses under it as a sign of friendship and goodwill.

In the 18th Century, the exchanging of kisses between a man and a woman was adopted as a promise to marry. At Christmas a young lady standing under a ball of mistletoe cannot refuse to be kissed. The kiss could mean deep romance, lasting friendship and goodwill. It was believed that if the girl remained unkissed, she cannot expect to marry the following year.

About the mistletoe plant
Mistletoe is a partial parasite, a “hemiparasite.” 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. It is also capable for growing on its own, producing its own food by photosynthesis.

There are two types of mistletoe. The European mistletoe (Viscum album) is a green shrub with small, yellow flowers and white, sticky berries which are considered poisonous. It commonly seen on apple trees, and sometimes on oak trees. The rarer oak mistletoe was greatly venerated by the ancient Celts and Germans and used as a ceremonial plant by early Europeans. The mistletoe found in North America (Phoradendron flavescens) grows as a parasite on trees from New Jersey to Florida.

Mistletoe was held sacred by ancient peoples. It was forbidden to fight in the presence of mistletoe. Eventually the tradition carried through as the Christmas slogan “Peace and Joy unto all men.’

In the Celtic language mistletoe means “all-heal.”

British bee farmers used to put sprigs of mistletoe on their beehives. They believed the bees hummed in honour of the Christ Child.

In France, the custom linked to mistletoe was reserved for New Year’s Day. Today, kisses can be exchanged under the mistletoe any time during the holiday season.

To avoid persecution during Roman pagan festivals, early Christians decked their homes with holly.

Druids wore sprigs of holly in their hair when they went into the forest to watch their priests cut their sacred mistletoe.

The English had the “he holly and the she holly” as being the determining factor in who will rule the household in the following year. The “she holly” have smooth leaves and the “he holly” prickly ones.

The common name of the mistletoe is derived from bird droppings. “Mistel” is the Anglo-Saxon word for “dung,” and “tan” is the word for “twig.” So, mistletoe means “dung-on-a-twig.” (!)


Mistletoe its history, meaning and traditions

Mistletoe is especially interesting botanically because it is a partial parasite (a "hemiparasite"). 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 for 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. There are two types of mistletoe. The mistletoe that is commonly used as a Christmas decoration (Phoradendron flavescens) is native to North America and grows as a parasite on trees in the west as also in those growing in a line down the east from New Jersey to Florida. The other type of mistletoe, Viscum album, is of European origin. The European mistletoe is a green shrub with small, yellow flowers and white, sticky berries which are considered poisonous. It commonly seen on apple but only rarely on oak trees. The rarer oak mistletoe was greatly venerated by the ancient Celts and Germans and used as a ceremonial plant by early Europeans. The Greeks and earlier peoples thought that it had mystical powers and down through the centuries it became associated with many folklore customs.

The Plant :

Mistletoe is especially interesting botanically because it is a partial parasite (a "hemiparasite"). 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 for 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. There are two types of mistletoe. The mistletoe that is commonly used as a Christmas decoration (Phoradendron flavescens) is native to North America and grows as a parasite on trees from New Jersey to Florida. The other type of mistletoe, Viscum album, is of European origin. The European mistletoe is a green shrub with small, yellow flowers and white, sticky berries which are considered poisonous. It commonly seen on apple but only rarely on oak trees. The rarer oak mistletoe was greatly venerated by the ancient Celts and Germans and used as a ceremonial plant by early Europeans. The Greeks and earlier peoples thought that it had mystical powers and down through the centuries it became associated with many folklore customs.

The Mistletoe Magic :

From the earliest times mistletoe has been one of the most magical, mysterious, and sacred plants of European folklore. It was considered to bestow life and fertility a protection against poison and an aphrodisiac. The mistletoe of the sacred oak was especially sacred to the ancient Celtic Druids. On the sixth night of the moon white-robed Druid priests would cut the oak mistletoe with a golden sickle. Two white bulls would be sacrificed amid prayers that the recipients of the mistletoe would prosper. Later, the ritual of cutting the mistletoe from the oak came to symbolize the emasculation of the old King by his successor. Mistletoe was long regarded as both a sexual symbol and the "soul" of the oak. 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. The Greeks also thought that it had mystical powers and down through the centuries it became associated with many folklore customs. In the Middle Ages and later, branches of mistletoe were hung from ceilings to ward off evil spirits. In Europe they were placed over house and stable doors to prevent the entrance of witches. It was also believed that the oak mistletoe could extinguish fire. This was associated with an earlier belief that the mistletoe itself could come to the tree during a flash of lightning. The traditions which began with the European mistletoe were transferred to the similar American plant with the process of immigration and settlement.

Kissing under the mistletoe :

Kissing under the mistletoe is first found associated with the Greek festival of Saturnalia and later with primitive marriage rites. They probably originated from two beliefs. One belief was that it has power to bestow fertility. It was also believed that the dung from which the mistletoe would also possess "life-giving" power. In Scandinavia, mistletoe was considered a plant of peace, under which enemies could declare a truce or warring spouses kiss and make-up. Later, the eighteenth-century English credited with a certain magical appeal called a kissing ball.

At Christmas time a young lady standing under a ball of mistletoe, brightly trimmed with evergreens, ribbons, and ornaments, cannot refuse to be kissed. Such a kiss could mean deep romance or lasting friendship and goodwill. If the girl remained unkissed, she cannot expect not to marry the following year. In some parts of England the Christmas mistletoe is burned on the twelfth night lest all the boys and girls who have kissed under it never marry. Whether we believe it or not, it always makes for fun and frolic at Christmas celebrations. Even if the pagan significance has been long forgotten, the custom of exchanging a kiss under the mistletoe can still be found in many European countries as well as in Canada. Thus if a couple in love exchanges a kiss under the mistletoe, it is interpreted as a promise to marry, as well as a prediction of happiness and long life. In France, the custom linked to mistletoe was reserved for New Year's Day: "Au gui l'An neuf" (Mistletoe for the New Year). Today, kisses can be exchanged under the mistletoe any time during the holiday season.

The Legend :

For its supposedly mystical power mistletoe has long been at the center of many folklore. One is associated with the Goddess Frigga. The story goes that Mistletoe was the sacred plant of Frigga, goddess of love and the mother of Balder, the god of the summer sun. Balder had a dream of death which greatly alarmed his mother, for should he die, all life on earth would end. In an attempt to keep this from happening, Frigga went at once to air, fire, water, earth, and every animal and plant seeking a promise that no harm would come to her son. Balder now could not be hurt by anything on earth or under the earth. But Balder had one enemy, Loki, god of evil and he knew of one plant that Frigga had overlooked in her quest to keep her son safe. It grew neither on the earth nor under the earth, but on apple and oak trees. It was lowly mistletoe. So Loki made an arrow tip of the mistletoe, gave to the blind god of winter, Hoder, who shot it , striking Balder dead. The sky paled and all things in earth and heaven wept for the sun god. For three days each element tried to bring Balder back to life. He was finally restored by Frigga, the goddess and his mother. It is said the tears she shed for her son turned into the pearly white berries on the mistletoe plant and in her joy Frigga kissed everyone who passed beneath the tree on which it grew. The story ends with a decree that who should ever stand under the humble mistletoe, no harm should befall them, only a kiss, a token of love.

What could be more natural than to translate the spirit of this old myth into a Christian way of thinking and accept the mistletoe as the emblem of that Love which conquers Death? Its medicinal properties, whether real or imaginary, make it a just emblematic of that Tree of Life, the leaves of which are for the healing of the nations thus paralleling it to the Virgin Birth of Christ.


Creating modern traditions

It was the Industrial Revolution which came much closer to destroying Christmas than the puritans managed, by taking away traditional holidays in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Social reformers responded by energetically reinventing traditions.

The emphasis remained heavily on female responsibility for decorations, however. The British magazine, The Lady, asserted in 1896 that any hostess whose decorations were “meagre” was a disgrace to her family.

What then would be expected by this date? A middle-class woman might have been guided by the song which opens with the celebrated instruction to “Deck the hall[s] with boughs of holly”, published in 1862.

This song is itself a good example of the ongoing recreating of traditions throughout history. The new English lyrics were written to accompany a 16th-century Welsh melody, whose original words made no mention of holly or decorating. The 1862 lyrics were almost immediately updated to remove encouragement of heavy drinking.

Still relatively new in Britain and the US at this time, though rising in popularity, was the German custom of the decorated Christmas tree, which was first recorded in the Rhineland in the 16th century.

Its decorations were mainly candles and small presents, which were often homemade food and sweets. By 1896 the tree might be accompanied by a display of printed Christmas cards bearing images of holly, mistletoe, seasonal food and bells. Newer images included robins and, of course, Father Christmas. Another innovation was the arrival of electric lighting in the 1890s, which made possible the invention of fairy lights.

Arguably, the Industrial Revolution, having failed to destroy Christmas, eventually absorbed and expanded it. Affordable, mass-produced toys, gifts and decorations turned Christmas into the festival we know today and made decorations possible for almost all households, even in big cities where foliage was scarce.

One man who played a major part in creating and spreading affordable versions of decorations was the American entrepreneur and retail mogul, F W Woolworth. His decision to import large quantities of glass baubles and stars, originally produced by family workshops in Germany, did much to spread this new medium.

Alongside these came paper garlands and decorative Christmas stockings, as well as painted tin toys. Another idea which started in Germany was tinsel. This was originally fine, sparkling strips of silver, but was later mass produced – first in cheaper metals, and then plastic.

Today, of course, plastic is widely out of favour. As a result, perhaps we will see further reinvention of our Christmas decorations and traditions – which, from a historical perspective, is a tradition in itself.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Sayings About Mistletoe:

The mistletoe hung on the castle wall,
And the holly branch shone in the old oak hall
And the baron’s retainers were blithe and gay,
Keeping their Christmas holiday.

* * *

Down with the Rosemary, and so
Down with the Baies and Mistletoe
Down with the Holly, Ivy, all,
Wherewith ye dress the Christmas hall
That so the superstitious find
Not one least branch left thar behind
For look, how many leaves there be
Neglected there (maids, trust to me)
So many goblins you shall see.

Down with the Rosemary and Bays,
Down with the Mistletoe
Instead of Holly now upraise
The greener Box for show.

Evergreens and Mistletoe
Along the upper Mimbres grow
Evergreens and mistletoe
Symbols of the Yuletide dear
Promise of abundant cheer.
Let us gather them today,
Spoils to make our Christmas gay,
Evergreens and mistletoe
Where the winter colors glow.
Returning with the setting sun,
Burdened with the trophies won,
We’ll deck our homes where love holds sway
Forever and a day.

For this man, mistletoe is the greatest invention of all time.


4. Christmas Bells

Bells were a part of significant events and celebrations long before Christianity, and the noise they made was originally used to ward off evil spirits.

Later, the bells were used to announce any big moment, good or bad, which is why they were used for the birth of Christ.

As Christian churches expanded across Eurasia, bells became a standard feature of them because they announced the start of church services to the community. So Christmas bells were rooted in the ringing to announce church services on the holiday.

Christmas bells later branched out into being used as musical instruments for children and carolers. As a result, they became one of the most common of all Christmas ornaments.


The Paradise Tree

There is a very old and charming European custom of decorating a fir tree with apples and small white wafers representing the Holy Eucharist. These wafers were later replaced by little pieces of pastry cut in the shapes of stars, angels, hearts, flowers, and bells. Eventually other cookies were introduced bearing the shapes of men, birds, roosters and other animals.

In the Middle Ages, about the 11th century, religious theater was born. One of the most popular plays, the German mystery play, concerned Adam and Eve, their fall and expulsion from the Garden of Eden--from the Early Paradise. The Garden of Eden was represented by a fir tree hung with apples. It represented both the Tree of Life and the Tree of Discernment of Good and Evil which stood in the center of Paradise . The play ended with the prophecy of a coming Savior, and for this reason, this particular play was often enacted during Advent.

The one piece of scenery--the "Paradeisbaum (the Paradise Tree) became a popular object, and was often set up in churches, and eventually in private homes as well. It became a symbol of the Savior. Since the tree represented not only Paradise , and man's fall, but also the promise of salvation, it was hung not merely with apples, but also with bread or wafers (Holy Eucharist) and often sweets (representing the sweetness of redemption). In sections of Bavaria , fir branches and little trees, decorated with lights, apples and tinsel are still called Paradeis.

The German and English immigrants brought the Christmas tree to America . Fruits, nuts, flowers, and lighted candles adorned the first Christmas trees, but only the strongest trees could support the weight without drooping thus, German glassblowers began producing lightweight glass balls to replace heavier, natural decorations. These lights and decorations were symbols of the joy and light of Christmas. The star that tops the tree is symbolic of the "Star in the East".


Christmas Mistletoe: The Underlying Celtic Traditions

Almost everyone associates the beautiful mistletoe plant with Christmas. Alongside holly, it is synonymous with the festive season and is commonly associated with stealing a kiss under a doorframe! But as with so many traditional symbols, its origins actually pre-date the Christian festival of Christmas and has roots in Irelands Celtic culture. The use of mistletoe can be traced back to far more ancient cultures in which it was revered as a fertility and health symbol. The Druids even believed that it would ward off evil.

An Original Celtic Tradition

For the Irish Celts, the green-leafed and white-berried plant was a key cultural and fertility symbol and it was particularly revered for its healing powers. Because mistletoe grows on tree branches without being connected to the earth, Celtic Druids believed that the plant was an earthly manifestation of Taranus, the sun or thunder god.

Trees that hosted the plant on their branches were believed to have been blessed and were held as sacred because the Druids worshipped the sun as a central focus of their spiritual practice. The belief was that the plant would absorb the host tree’s essence, which is actually a scientifically accurate viewpoint, as this plant essentially feeds off the tree.

For these ancient peoples, finding the shrub growing on an oak, their most revered and holy tree, was of particular significance. In this situation, it was harvested in accordance with complex and lengthy ceremonies. Its leaves and berries were used to provide symbolic protection from evil, and to strengthen the body against poison and ill humours.

Ritual Havesting of the Mistletoe

Traditionally, the harvesting took place according to a tightly defined ritual practice. It followed the first new moon that appeared after autumn had fallen and six further days had elapsed. From a purely practical perspective, the trees were largely devoid of leaves by this point, making it rather easier to find the plant.

This timing may well explain how the shrub became incorporated into Western culture and Christmas. As the Christian church became established, it was keen to retain symbols that people knew and with which they felt an affinity, albeit re-framed within the new Christian narrative.

The reverence with which the Celts treated this green and iconic white-berried plant is hard to imagine in today’s day and age. During the harvesting process, it was treated with incredible care and was never allowed to touch the ground. It was considered to be so magical that valuable livestock were sacrificed to the sun god, to thank him for the gift.

Medicinal and Protective

As the ages passed, the allure of mistletoe by no means diminished. From the druids to medieval times, it was called allheal in recognition of its medicinal properties. Its berries and leaves were used to treat an array of diseases including cancers and to promote fertility. As part of Druid rituals and other ancient folklore, it was also hung in stables and homes to protect against evil and mischievous spirits.

Today, mistletoe is associated with goodwill, love, happiness and friendship and love is believed to reside in the homes that it adorns. In hanging a fresh sprig indoors every year, love is invited into the home, which explains why we have the modern practice of kissing underneath it.


The Victorians had rules about the kissing

But how did it become a Christmas thing instead of, say, a Valentine's Day tradition? No one is really sure how it transformed into a Christmas practice, though it might have something to do with the holiday as a time of celebration with those you love. Druids also tended to collect the plant during the winter solstice, described LiveScience.

People kissing under the mistletoe began in ancient times, when Greeks hung it during weddings to symbolize peace and people coming together. During the Victorian era, the tradition started to creep into Christmas. First gaining popularity with servants, according to History, a man was allowed to steal kisses from a woman only while standing under the plant. Refusing was considered bad luck, but if you kissed under the mistletoe, you'd be blessed.

And men who wanted to steal a kiss? They could do so until all the berries on the sprig were gone. After a kiss, pick off a berry. Charles Dickens, everyone's favorite Christmas author, described a scene in The Pickwick Papers where girls were forced by mistletoe to be kissed.

The idea that people have to kiss underneath a hemiparasitic plant or face dire consequences sounds like a nightmare, but, hey, people also think the song "Baby It's Cold Outside" is sweet, so whatever floats your boat. Just make sure that if you do kiss someone under the mistletoe, don't eat the berries you pick off. They're quite poisonous.


Watch the video: Die Stechpalme Ilex aquifolium (July 2022).


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