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Green festive traditions

Please join your local wildlife trust today

Please join your local wildlife trust today

Please join your local wildlife trust today

Posted: Wednesday 13th December 2017 by bbowtblog

Holly by Scott PetrekHolly by Scott Petrek

Find out about the fascinating natural history of our Christmas traditions.

Ben Vanheems

Written by Ben Vanheems, Editor of Wildlife News

Many of the customs that we now take for granted, such as decorating homes with boughs of the colourful ‘double act’ of holly and ivy, and putting wreaths on front doors have pagan undertones.

Holly and ivy, plants that hold onto their leaves and have berries during the bleakest months, were revered as magical ‘life symbols’. The Romans brought these evergreens into homes at the winter solstice as part of the feast of Saturnalia, and to encourage the return of the sun and its life-giving warmth.

Ivy by Andy Fairbairn

As Christianity became established evergreens made their way into church buildings too. Holly was first through the door, its association with Christ’s crown of thorns earning it a reputation as protection against evil.

Ivy was equally assumed to have vice-repelling properties, coming into its own as a warning to any witches in the neighbourhood! For this reason many cottage dwellers would allow it to grow over their houses.

The Victorians established the tradition of bringing pine trees indoors, to be decorated and lit up with candles; and they adapted both holly and ivy to lavishly adorn their parlours.

Mistletoe by Zsuzsanna Bird

Mistletoe is the most intriguing of our festive greenery. This common semi-parasite of willow, poplar and apple trees has no roots, relying instead on its host plant for the majority of its food and water.

The word mistletoe comes from two Anglo Saxon words: ‘mistel’ or dung and ‘tan’ or stick, which accurately describes one of the ways in which mistletoe is planted into a tree. Birds that have eaten mistletoe berries then pass out the seeds in their droppings onto twigs and branches where they take root and grow.

Today mistletoe is often hung above the entrance to our homes to greet our friends, but in times past there would have been large Kissing Boughs made of wooden hoops of holly, ivy, fir, rosemary and bay with a sprig of mistletoe berries.

So when you next steal a kiss under the mistletoe, or hang up your colourful wreath of holly and fir on your door, consider the wealth of history that lies behind our favourite Christmas wildlife.



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