In a slight departure from my usual articles about herbs and their uses in skincare, I thought it would be fun to look at Yuletide herbs and their origins in the festive mid-winter period. Happy Yule!
Yule is a winter celebration which was observed by people in northern Europe as a Pagan religious festival. It finds its roots in the Roman festival of Saturnalia which coincided with the start of the Winter Solstice and saw the start of a week of feasting, dancing and general merriment. This celebration was later merged with Christmas, but the Pagan practices of Yule date back many hundreds of years and it might surprise you to learn that many of our herbal Christmas traditions actually have their roots in much older festivities.
The Druids revered trees and it is thought that this led to the tree playing a pivotal role in Yule celebrations. An evergreen tree would be either be decorated outside or brought into the home and decorated as part of this winter festival. Trees were thought to provide homes for Fairies and other Spirits so people dressed their tree in strips of brightly coloured cloth, strings of shiny beads, fruit and nuts.
Once Christianity arrived, early Church leaders banned this practice to try and eradicate Paganism and its beliefs. In fact, here in the UK (where I live) our modern-day Christmas tree only dates back to the 1840s when this practice was made popular by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert who carried over the tradition from Germany.
When the landscape is often barren and white in the northern hemisphere, winter herbs are a welcome sight and are frequently used to decorate our homes. At this time of year we all know and love holly, ivy and mistletoe whose evergreen nature adds a splash of colour to our gardens. This Holy Trinity of Yuletide herbs comes into its own during the winter months when few other plants survive. It should come as no surprise that these three herbs have been used for thousands of years and are shrouded in a rich folklore.
Holly (Ilex aquifolium)
This lovely evergreen tree is well known around Yule or Christmas, when people use it in their door wreaths, home decorations and even on the top of cakes. Its prickly leaves and red berries stand out during a time of year when most plants have died back and the ground is covered in snow.
Holly has been used for thousands of years and has always been thought to possess great protective powders and influence. The use of holly in winter time is recorded as far back as Ancient Roman times, when holly was associated with Saturn, the Sun God. Romans made holly wreaths and decorated images of Saturn with sprigs of holly around the time of Saturnalia.
Holly was also an important herb in Pagan/Druidic customs, where holly leaves and branches were placed around the house during winter. At this dark time of year, holly was associated with the death and rebirth symbolism of winter and is an important herb to the Winter Solstice. Sprigs of holly around the house were also thought to offer shelter to fairies and elves during the cold winter months.
It was believed that the Oak King and the Holly King were twins, clenched in an ongoing battle for power. Once the Winter Solstice dawns upon us, the oak trees have lost their leaves and the evergreen holly stands out in the landscape – seeming to have won the battle as its twin brother looked naked and defeated. However, come Summer Solstice the oaks are in full leaf once again and the holly waits for winter to return once again.
As countries around the world were converted to Christianity, people continued to decorate their home with holly. Eventually, as with many other Pagan traditions, holly’s symbolism was changed to fit the religion of the day and so we still find ourselves using this evergreen herb during the winter months to decorate our homes.
Ivy (Hedera helix)
Ivy has long been placed together with holly during the winter festivities. Another evergreen plant, ivy symbolises the concept of eternity and was even thought to represent the immortal soul given its love of growing on dead or decaying trees.
The Romans used ivy to make crowns and you will see these frequently depicted along with images of Bacchus, the god of wine and wine-making. Ivy was frequently used during ancient festivals as decoration and understandably it was popular during winter festivals when few other plants were available.
Pagans fashioned ivy into wreaths and garlands during Yule and while it was likely not as popular as holly, the marriage of these two herbs is immortalised in the traditional Christmas carol “The Holly and the Ivy”. This well-known carol draws on both Christian and Pagan symbols, bringing both of these ancient winter herbs together. However, other than the title, the carol doesn’t actually mention ivy in the lyrics.
It is thought that this carol dates back to a much older traditions of songs which described the rivalry between men (the holly) and women (the ivy), where the men sang songs praising holly and criticising ivy, while women sang songs praising ivy and criticising holly. More of the men’s songs were recorded and survived down the ages, which is possibly where our modern-day Christmas carol originated. In fact, some manuscripts suggest that there used to be midwinter sing-offs between men and women where such songs were written and performed in ancient English village life. Ultimately, they would kiss and make-up under the mistletoe.
Mistletoe (Viscum album)
The third plant in our Holy Trinity of Yuletide herbs, mistletoe is a well-known winter herb. Its use in celebrations dates back to Pagan and Norse times, where its symbolic significance was derived from the fact that it never touches the ground. Mistletoe is an evergreen parasitic plant that often grows in the branches of apple trees and was said to grow neither in heaven nor on Earth. Even today some people consider it bad luck to allow mistletoe to touch the ground.
Mistletoe is best known for being hung from our door frames and used to steal kisses during the winter festivities. The origins of mistletoe as the kissing herb are thought to date back to ancient marriage traditions and Nordic folklore. If you encountered an enemy under the mistletoe when you were out in the woods, tradition required that you both lay down your weapons until the following day. This ancient Scandinavian custom is said to have led to the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe.
Another explanation perhaps finds its roots in pre-Christian cultures where mistletoe was thought to represent the divine male essence, along with fertility, vitality and romance. Although we have given that an innocent twist in the form of a kiss, it is possible that mistletoe was a catalyst for uninhibited sexuality at a time of year that was traditionally already associated with the rebirth of life.
So when you next bring plants into your home at Christmas or Yule, spare a thought for their roots in Pagan folklore and mythology. These three plants are some of the most prominent green plants in native woodland during the winter (in some parts of the world anyway), and for this reason alone they deserve our respect and have earned a welcome place in our winter celebrations and traditions. Merry Yule!
How do you use plants in your home at Yule? Leave me a comment below!