It is customary to decorate our homes with evergreens at Christmas; love it or hate it, it is a tradition we are all familiar with. Yet whilst these evergreens have become symbolic of the Christian faith, it is interesting to note that their use at mid-winter stretches even further back in time to our earlier pagan ancestors .
This is not to belittle Christian Christmas celebrations in any way, but for me personally, it is so intriguing to discover the origins of our myths and traditions, and sometimes, they can be quite surprising.
As I have become more aware of the Celtic calendar, I have grown to enjoy and anticipate mid-winter. Nowadays, it does not come with the harsh struggle for survival our ancestors faced, but the dark and cold and near-death of winter are a stark reminder of just how fortunate we are. I love that the solstice means longer brighter days are already on the way. I love that a few weeks later, it will be Imbolc, the first day of Celtic spring.
These dates were held as auspicious and celebrated by the ancient peoples. Despite its darkness and hardship, these festivals, brightened with their huge fires and sense of community working together, must have made the winter pass more quickly.
I described winter as a near-death, and indeed so it must have seemed; the sun was distant and weak, unable to warm earth or air, unable to hold back the night; trees wept leaves like tears; plants melted into the earth, inert beneath frozen or sodden ground; birds flew away; animals hibernated or migrated. The only vivacious sign of life flourishing in the land whilst all else wasted, was the evergreens. No wonder they became a beacon of hope, a symbol of endurance and survival. No wonder people brought them into their homes as a reminder.
The following are my five favourite evergreens…
the holly king – cuillean (kwill-un)
I adore the glossy vibrant green leaves and bold red berries of the holly! I know the leaves are fearsomely spiky, but just looking at holly is enough to brighten even the dullest grey winter’s day. Nowadays, we hang it in wreaths on our front doors to bid a cheery Christmas welcome to visitors, but our ancient ancestors believed it protected their homes from lightning. How? Well if you missed it first time around, you can read all about it here in my post Tree Lore in Irish Mythology | Holly, King of Winter.
mistletoe – drualas (droo-ah-lus)
Beloved of the Druids, mistletoe was also known by the name of ‘All-Heal’ as its medicinal properties were thought to be extremely varied. This is what Pliny the Elder, a Roman historian of the C1st AD wrote about mistletoe…
“The druids – that is what they call their magicians – hold nothing more sacred than the mistletoe and a tree on which it is growing, provided it is a hard-timbered oak…. Mistletoe is rare and when found it is gathered with great ceremony, and particularly on the sixth day of the moon…. Hailing the moon in a native word that means ‘healing all things,’ they prepare a ritual sacrifice and banquet beneath a tree and bring up two white bulls, whose horns are bound for the first time on this occasion. A priest arrayed in white vestments climbs the tree and, with a golden sickle, cuts down the mistletoe, which is caught in a white cloak. Then finally they kill the victims, praying to a god to render his gift propitious to those on whom he has bestowed it. They believe that mistletoe given in drink will impart fertility to any animal that is barren and that it is an antidote to all poisons.”
Mistletoe was used by our ancient ancestors for its powers of protection, healing, fertility, and good luck. It was seen as a symbol of freedom, for it wasn’t earthbound like the trees it grew upon.
When it chose the venerated and mighty oak as its host, the King of the Forest, revered by the Druids, the message was powerful; the oak, solid, male, sturdy; the mistletoe upon its arm, female, fertile. Together, they signified unity and partnerships, a symbol of fertility and renewal founded on solidity and strength. In fact, it is said that so profound and respected was this pairing, battles would be stopped if the warriors came upon them during their combat.
Here’s a little known fact; the church banned the use of mistletoe for hundreds of years due to they extent to which it was venerated by the pagans. It regained popularity among the Victorians for kissing beneath, thus reviving the association of the white berries with peace, fertility and so with love.
Here’s another little oddball fact; remember the bog-body named Lindow man found near Liverpool? Apparently he died, or was killed, after ingesting mistletoe pollen. Interesting.
ivy – eidhneán (eye-naun)
Queen to winter’s Holly King. The Ivy represents growth, renewal and connection. It was greatly admired for its determination to survive, and its propensity to return, no matter how seriously damaged, much like the human spirit.
Its Irish name derives from a word meaning cord for the way it spiralled around trees and clung on vigorously. If you have ever tried to pull ivy from the trunk of a tree, you will know just how tenacious and strong it is!
Incidentally, the spiral is also a popular symbol found in much of Ireland’s ancient rock art. It is thought to perhaps symbolise eternity. In much the same way, ivy found growing on a dead tree, or the tree which in winter appears to be dead, was thought to symbolise the soul living on beyond the death of the body.
In the past, ivy was seen not just as a symbolic plant, but as a healer too; it was used to treat corns, burns and scalds, as well as to stop bleeding and reduce inflammation.
the scots pine – péine albanach (pain-uh alb-an-ah)
The Scots Pine is a native Irish evergreen tree which was widespread thousands of years ago. Pollen and pine stumps have been found standing in bogs where they originally grew dating to seven thousand years ago. It is thought that human action on the land and climate change were responsible for their decline. Fortunately, the Scots Pine was re-introduced to Ireland 150 years ago, and is flourishing here once again.
The Scots Pine was listed in the Brehon Law as a ‘Chieftain tree’ with the name ochtrach. It was also known as ‘the sweetest of woods’, which would seem to indicate that it may have been aromatic when burned. Certainly its needles were dried and burned with juniper for cleansing and purification purposes, and it was used in the bonfires of the Winter Solstice celebrations.
Medicinally, its resin was used to treat respiratory problems, and for its antiseptic and disinfectant properties.
In Irish mythology, when tragic heroine Deirdre of the Sorrows and her lover Naoise perished, it was said that Scots Pines grew out of their graves and intertwined.
juniper – aiteal (at-al)
The juniper is a native evergreen of Ireland that has an association with Christmas through an old Italian legend. The story goes that as Jesus and his family fled from Herod, the juniper trees stretched out their branches and enlarged their leaves to hide their passage. In honour of this, boughs were cut and used to decorate homes at Christmas.
In Ireland, it was known as ‘the yew of the rock’, because it flourished in barren, open rocky places rather than in the heart of the forest. It was also associated with the west wind, which is the direction in which the Otherworld is located, and would therefore seem to have magical connotations.
In fact, its soft aromatic wood was used by our ancient ancestors in their sacred fires for purification purposes, and the fragrant smoke was thought to aid clairvoyance and stimulate contact with Otherworldly beings.
The familiar blue-black berries take two years to ripen, and are used to flavour gin and meat dishes. They have a very strong flavour… less, is definitely more! Juniper berries were used in iron-age cooking, and you can read more about this in my post, Eating Like the Ancestors, an Experiment in Iron-Age Cuisine.
But the berries also contained healing properties; they were thought to aid digestion, and were used for stomach ailments. Here in Co Cavan, where I live, juice was extracted from the berries and administered specifically to cure dropsy (oedema). It was used in childbirth to stimulate contractions, and also in abortions.
You can read more about the origins of Christmas in my other seasonal posts;
And if like me you can’t get enough of Irish mythology, why not give yourself a chrissy pressie this year? Perhaps one of these… because you’re worth it!
NOLLAIG SHONA DHÍBH!
(null-ig hun-a yeev)
Happy Christmas to you!
Sources and further reading
The Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore By Patricia Monaghan