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Wreaths And Other Greens

Wreaths, swags and greens are an important part of our Christmas festivities, with the wide range of materials available to us, we can create hundreds of modern variations on the evergreen wreath. But even thousands of years ago wreaths and winter greens had a special significance.

A very special wreath at Christmas time is the Advent wreath of Northern Europe, made of evergreen branches. They are round as a symbol of God's eternity and mercy, of which every season of Advent is a new reminder; and it is made of evergreens to symbolize God's "everlastingness" and our immortality. Green is also the Church's color of hope and new life. It holds four candles, one for each Sunday of Advent. Four candles, three purple or violet that represent penance, sorrow, and longing expectation and one rose or pink that represents the hope and coming joy are placed within to represent the four weeks of Advent. They are replaced with white candles for the Christmas season that ends with Epiphany. The evergreen boughs are trimmed with pine cones, ribbons, sprigs of holly, mistletoe and artificial snow. Many Swedish families have traditional brass advent candle holders, which they place in the wreath every year. An Advent wreath, with its candles lit makes a truly beautiful sight when it is hung over a festive table.

The true origin of the Advent wreath is not known, but some people believe that it was inspired by the Swedish crown of lights, a candle baring crown worn by young Swedish girls on Saint Lucia's Day. According to legend, Saint Lucia was a young woman, a Christian before Christianity was widely accepted, who gave her entire dowry to the poor. Where there was great poverty in Sweden, she would arrive with a shipload of food to feed the hungry. Soon after that, she was martyred for her Christian beliefs. Her halo is symbolized by the crown of lights Traditionally, the Saint Lucia crown is covered in evergreen boughs, and holds four candles, just like the Advent wreath.

In old German tradition, on the first Sunday of Advent, the children write their Christmas letter to the Christ child, Christkindl, who accompanied by His angels, will bring the Christmas tree and all the good things on it and under it. In Denmark, the Christmas season begins on December 1, with the lighting of the calendar candle. The candle is marked with 24 lines, one for each day before Christmas; the burning of the candle represents the waiting and preparing for Christ's coming.

There are many ways to create an Advent Wreath...some advice on creating your own Advent Wreath will appear in Fridge Art in the second week of Advent - still not too late to start.

Other traditional Christmas greenery includes:

  • Holly,
  • Mistletoe,
  • Poinsettia,
  • Rosemary, and
  • The Christmas Rose

Holly and mistletoe were venerable plants because (as evergreens do) they remained steadfast to triumph over the cold. Moreover, they were powerful enough to fruit in a bleak and barren season.

Holly, Ilex, is any of several trees and shrubs that belong to the holly family, Aquifoliaceae. Hollys have glossy, evergreen or deciduous leaves, small, inconspicuous flowers, and bright red berries.

In Scandinavia, the evergreen varieties were revered; a sign of defiance to cold and a symbol of life’s continuity. Holly was thought to be the home of wandering spirits. It was hung in homes to assure the occupants good luck. It was assumed that the "points" would snag the evil-intentioned and prevent their entering. When holly was brought into the house, it became an object of lively interest and speculation. It was (incorrectly) believed that the very sharp "pointed" leaves were male, the smoother, female. Thus, the type of holly determined who should "rule the roost" in the coming year. Victorian merchant, Henry Mayhew estimated that London merchants sold 250,000 bushels during the 1851 Christmas (not to imply there was a lively trade in alternately pointed and smooth leaves).

Many other myths surround this most popular of all Christmas plants. It supposedly wards off witches. A Syrup made from holly allegedly cures coughs. A spring of holly on a bedpost assures one of pleasant dreams. Many, many other such myths also exist.

Christian tradition assigns significance to Holly. According to tradition the pointy leaves represent the thorns of Christ's Crown. The perennial green leaves represent eternal life. The red berries represent the blood he for our salvation.

There is even a tradition that holly was used to make the crown of thorns. At that time the berries were yellow. In honor to the blood shed by Christ the berries turned red.

While holly is most often pictured as having red berries the berries come in other colors too. One tradition says that white berries represent Jesus purity, green berries the cross of wood, and black berries his death.

Many holly species have the pistillate (berry-bearing flower) on one plant and the staminate (pollen-bearing flower) on another plant. Hollys bear fruit best in colder climates and can withstand most freezing temperatures. American holly, Ilex opaca, a slow-growing evergreen tree, can reach heights of 18 m (60 ft) at maturity. Holly trees can live for 200 years. The leaves are stiff and deep dull-green with spines on the margin. The bright red berries ripen in October and remain through winter. English Holly, Ilex aquifolium, is similar to American holly but has glossier leaves and larger clusters of berries. It is not as hardy as American holly.

See The Holly and The Ivy.

Mistletoe

Two hundred years before the birth of Christ, the Druids used mistletoe to celebrate the coming of winter. They would gather this evergreen plant that is parasitic upon other trees and used it to decorate their homes, especially mistletoe which grew on the sacred oak tree. They believed the plant had special healing powers for everything from female infertility to poison ingestion. Scandinavians also thought of mistletoe as a plant of peace and harmony. They associated mistletoe with their goddess of love, Frigga. The custom of kissing under the mistletoe is said to have derived from this belief.

Long called Allheal, the word "mistletoe" comes to us from the Norse. Where the oak was a powerful symbol of God, mistletoe was regarded as having the same dependent relationship to the oak as man's to heaven. Sacred to both Norse and Celt, this remarkable little plant (the golden bough of Frazer's title) has survived Christianization more successfully than most, even to adorning the alter at York Cathedral on Christmas Eve, from which widespread amnesties were announced. Among pre-Christianized Germans, mistletoe served to exorcise ghosts from houses. At this time of year, using a golden sickle and making certain none fell to the ground, the Druids cut mistletoe branches from a sacred oak, and distributed bunches to each family under their care. Our kissing tradition was known to the Romans, but even this likely hearkens back to mistletoe's long association with fertility. Infusions were given both to barren women and to those in labor, to relax childbearing muscles.

Mistletoes are typically small, green-leaved shrubs of the mistletoe family, Loranthaceae, commonly semiparasitic on trees. They are widely known for their decorative use during the Christmas season and because they can cause serious injury to certain trees. Mistletoes penetrate the bark of the host tree and attach to the conducting tissues (xylem) by suckerlike organs called haustoria, which are generally considered to be modified roots. Mistletoes contain chlorophyll and can manufacture their own food by photosynthesis, but they extract water and nutrients from the host. They were once thought to have medicinal properties, and the mistletoe of Europe, Viscum album, was believed to possess magical powers when it was found growing on oak trees.

The American mistletoes comprise about 200 mostly tropical species in the genus Phoradendron and are found from the northern United States to central Argentina. They commonly appear as bunched tufts or leafy, perennial evergreen shoots that stand out when the host has shed its leaves. A few species form long, hanging tufts or spreading, fountainlike masses. The mature fruit is commonly a translucent whitish berry, sometimes shaded with green or yellow. Birds eat the berries and spread the seeds by wiping them off their bills on to branches or by depositing them in their droppings.

P. serotinum, with green, jointed stems up to 30 cm (1 ft) long and small, leathery leaves and yellow flowers, is the common American Christmas mistletoe.

Western American Indians used to boil the berries of certain species as food, and a tea made from the leaves was believed to have contraceptive and abortive qualities. Mistletoe may be toxic to browsing livestock, however, and the raw berries of Eastern species have proved fatal to children.

The dwarf mistletoes, Arceuthobium, attack and may kill conifer trees. They have small, scalelike leaves and vary in size from 13 mm to 15 cm (0.5 to 6 in).

Mistletoe has apparently been used as a decoration in houses for thousands of years and is also associated with many pagan rituals. According to the book Extraordinary Origins of Ordinary Things by Charles Panati, "the church forbade the use of mistletoe in any form, mindful of its idolatrous associations. As a substitute, it suggested holly. The sharply pointed leaves were to symbolize the thorns in Christ's crown and the red berries drops of his blood. Holly became a nativity tradition. The Christian ban on mistletoe was in effect throughout the middle ages. Surprisingly, as late as the 20th century, there were churches in England that forbade the wearing of mistletoe sprigs and corsages during services."

The tradition of kissing underneath the mistletoe began with a Scandinavian goddess called Frigga. Frigga's son Balder was shot with an arrow made of mistletoe. While Frigga's friends conjured up powers to save the boy, his mother cried tears that became the white berries on the mistletoe. Frigga's friends succeeded in saving Balder's life. Frigga ordered that the mistletoe should never again be used to harm others. Instead, she made it a symbol of love by kissing everyone who passed under it.

Lore and Divinatory Aspects:

Considered masculine and is associated with the sun, the element of air, and the Gods Apollo, Freya, Frigga, Venus, and Odin. The French claim that it was once a tree, but when it was used to make Christs' cross, it was cursed thereafter, denied a place on earth, and so became a parasite to live. Balder the God of Peace was slewn with an arrow made of mistletoe which deeply saddened the rest of the Gods. So out of sorrow they restored his life. When he returned the plant was given to the Goddess of Love who dedicated the plant to the love felt for Balder. She decreed that anyone passing beneath it must receive a kiss to show tribute to the "symbol of love." Mistle is imbued with the powers of protection, love, hunting, fertility, health, and exorcism. (Cunningham, p. 154) Many Druids believe whatever grows on oaks must be sent from the heavens as a choice that that particular tree was chosen by Deity. The union of the mistle with the oak is deeply symbolic of sexual union, as is its harvesting rite. Symbolically related to the male sperm due to the color and consistency of the berry juice. Being airborne and not having touched the ground, it is seen as a seed - in - potency, in potential awaiting the moment of conception when it is gathered up by the egg (the Druid) with a gold crescent sickle (gold representing the sun, crescent the moon, and sickle representing them conjoined and united). Its pollen was found in the botanical analysis of the remains of Lindow Man's (The Druid Prince) last sacrificial meal. (Ross, p. 40)

Magical Usage

The story known to us by Pliny in his Natural History, XVI, 249 tells the tale that its that time of year again, during Midsummer's Eve or when the moon is six days old, that news is spread of the New Year. The white robed Druids go forth seeking the mistle at night and once located with gather around the appropriated tree (preferably an Oak). The wise elder will climb the tree with gold sickle in hand, cuts the mistle down in a sacred way with a sacred prayer, while the Druids down below chant an equivalent of "Hey derry down, down, down, derry", and a white cloth catches it as it falls so as not to let it touch the ground and lose its potency. Two white bulls whose horns are bound are then sacrificed beneath the tree so that the mistle will be prosperous to those collecting it. The conjunction with the sickle, creates a union between Druid and Mistle, Moon and Sun, Earth and Sky, causing a spark to be drawn down into the body, into life on earth, as it is brought down the tree. This represents the Day of liberation - the celebration of that extra day of the year - on a day that is not a day, a time that is not a time, in a place that is not a place. (Glass-Koentop, p. 97)

Mistletoe is used for protecting one from lightning, diseases, misfortunes, fires, by being carried or placed in the appropriate spots. If placed in a cradle it will protect the child from being stolen by fairies and replaced with changelings. A ring carved of its wood will ward off sickness when worn and the plant will cure fresh wounds quickly if carried. Carried or worn for good luck in hunting, mistle is also used by women to aid in conception. It is used in spells to capture that elusive state of immortality and to open locks. If laid in the bedroom beneath the pillow, hung on the bedpost, or by the door, it provides restful sleep and beautiful dreams. Burned it banishes evil, and if worn around the neck allows its wearer to attain invisibility. (Cunningham, p. 155)

During December the stems carry flower buds which take on a golden tint and the moon forces are the strongest in the closed flowers. Mistle gathered during Winter Solstice is best for fertility. During the Summer Solstice, the power of the sap is at its max with a rose pink quality and is best for protection.

Medicinal Usage:

Druids called it "All-Heal" (Ull-ice), a "gift of the Gods, both a cure and a poison." By 1682, French herbalists prescribed it for epilepsy, nervouse disorders, St. Vitus' Dance, and in other countries was used for apoplexy, giddiness, to stimulate glandular activities, as a heart tonic, and digestive aid. It is believed that the active ingredient is the resin "viscin" which temporarily benumbs nerve impulses that would otherwise travel from a painful area/organ to the brain. It raises the blood pressure, then lowers it, and then speeds up the pulse. By these means it can interfere with epileptic spasms. (European Variety)

American Mistle contains amines tyramine and betaphenylethylamine that stimulates the heart and central nervous system, raises the blood pressure, causes contractions in smooth muscles (like uterine), and aids in childbirth. However both contain toxic proteins and have only recently been tested on animals since its toxicity is too high for human experimentation. Work has been done with cancer cells in laboratory cultures with V. album and has shown miraculous benefits to stopping cancer and therefore someday validating the ancient Druid cure for cancer. Mistletoe under FDA regulations cannot be used on humans because it slows the heartrate dangerously, causes hallucinations, convulsions, increased blood pressure, heart attacks, cardiovascular collapse, and death. (Rodale, p. 390)

Administered as a potion it can impact fecundity to any barren animal and is a remedy against all kinds of poison. (Carr-Gomm, p. 113)

Other Uses:

Hung above doorways during the Winter Solstice, (Dec. 23) or Christmas (Dec. 25) for lovers to kiss beneath. (Pagan Balder myth or Catholic St. Balder myth)

William Sandys, Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern (London: Richard Beckley, 1833)

"The misletoe, which forms an essential and prominent object in these decorations, was looked upon by our Pagan ancestors with a species of veneration; it is supposed to have been the sacred branch referred to by Virgil, in his description of the descent to the lower regions; and if so, may be presumed to have been in use in the religious ceremonies of the Greeks and Romans, as this description is considered an allegorical representation of some of their mysteries. It is well known that this plant was held sacred by the Druids and the Celtic nations, who attributed valuable medicinal qualities to it, calling it allheal, or in Welsh quidhel. The Gothic nations also attached extraordinary qualities to it, and it is said in the Edda to have been the cause of the death of Balder:

"Frigga, when she adjured all the other plants, with the animals, birds, metals, earth, fire, water, reptiles, diseases, and poison, not to do him any hurt, neglected to take any oath from the misletoe, as it appeared too young and feeble to injure him. When the gods in their great assembly amused themselves therefore by throwing darts and other missiles at him, which all fell harmless, Loke, moved with envy, joined them in the shape of an old woman, and persuaded Hoder, who was blind, to throw a branch of rnisletoe, guiding his hand for the purpose, when Balder fell dead, pierced through and through.

"The Druids used to collect the misletoe on the approach of the new year, with many mysterious ceremonies, such as cutting it with a golden sickle, and receiving it in a white cloth, the officiating Druids being also clad in white. This tended to increase the superstitious feeling of the people towards it, already aroused probably by the singular manner of its growth. As late as the 17th century peculiar efficacy was attached to it. Coles, in his “Art of Simpling” (1656, p.67,) observes that “If one hang misletoe about the neck, the witches can have no power of him.” Some lingering superstition remains to the present day, and in many houses a bunch of misletoe is suspended from the ceiling, under which the male part of the assembly have the privilege of taking the females and saluting them, at the same time they should wish them a happy new year, and present them with one of the berries for good luck. In other places people try lots by the crackling of the leaves and berries in the fire."

Poinsettias

Poinsettias are native to Mexico and were named for Joel Robert Poinsett (March 2, 1779 - December 12, 1851), a native of South Carolina. Poinsett was serving as the first ambassador in Mexico when he came across the Poinsettia. In 1825, he sent cuttings to his to South Carolina, where they did very well in his greenhouse (note that sources give various dates of introduction to the US from 1825 through 1829). The plant is sometimes referred to as the Poinsettia pulcherrima, according to biographer J. Fred Rippy, citing the Charleston Year Book (1887). Mr. Rippy had no details about the date of introduction.

There are several legends concerning the origin of the poinsettia. One says that a poor Mexican girl and her brother were on their way to church on Christmas eve but had nothing to give the Christ child. They gathered weeds and made them into a small bouquet. The other children made fun of their gift. When they laid the branches at the manger in the church the weeds were miraculously transformed into bright read and white leaves that we know was the poinsettia.

Another version of the legend speaks of a poor child who prayed for a gift to present to the Christ child. As he knelt at the altar his prayers bright red and green plants grew up at his feet.

A third legend that says that as the Star of Bethlehem shone of the earth the earth responded by producing a plant that mirrored the star's beauty. The flower was star shaped white petals with a golden star center. On the day that Christ died on the cross the white petals turned red to remember Jesus blood and some remained white to remember the purity of his sacrifice. Thus the Poinsettia became associated with the Christmas season.

The poinsettia, Euphorbia pulcherrima, belongs to the Spurge family, Euphorbiaceae. It thrives outdoors in subtropical or tropical regions, where it can reach heights of over 3 m (10 ft). Native to Mexico and South America, it must be grown indoors in cold climates; it is a popular garden shrub in southern states and California. The actual flower of the poinsettia is small and yellow. But surrounding the flower are large, bright red leaves (bracts), often mistaken for petals. No portion of the poinsettia is poisonous, according to horticultural experts.

  • 1833 - Red poinsettias sold in Philadelphia.
  • 1923 - Pink poinsettias produced.

An Act of Congress in 1991 recognized December 12 as National Poinsettia Day, marking the date of the death of Joel Robert Poinsett. For more information see History and Care of Poinsettias and Poinsettia Care Information.

Rosemary

Humility is the main idea behind the legends about rosemary.

Every Nativity set I have ever seen pictures Mary wearing blue. According to one legend Mary's blue cloak is where rosemary got it's color. The flowers are said to have been white. Then as Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus were fleeing to Egypt, Mary laid her cloak on a rosemary bush. Since that time rosemary has been blue.

Another legend says that Mary washed Jesus clothes in a stream while fleeing to Egypt and she laid them on a rosemary bush to let them dry. In honor for the humble service they gave the Savior rosemary were made blue. It is also said that the humble rosemary will never grow higher than Jesus and that if it outlives Jesus' 33 years it will not grow up but out.

The Christmas Rose

Like the legend of the poinsettia the legend associated with the Christmas rose begins with a poor girl. She stood outside the stable where Jesus was born and she cried because she had nothing to give Jesus. An angel took her tears and made them a rose at her feet.

Regrettably, however, the time must come when the holiday greenery must be removed.  Timing, of course, is everything.  According to poet Robert Herrick, the time is Candlemas Eve (the evening of February 1st):

Down with the rosemary, and so
Down with the bays and misletoe;
Down with the holly, ivy, all
Wherewith ye dress'd the Christmas hall;
That so the superstitious find
No one least branch there left behind;
For look, how many leaves there be
Neglected there, maids, trust to me,
So many goblins you shall see.

And, for the Yule log, Herrick advises:

Kindle the Christmas brand, and then
Till sunset let it burn;
Which quench'd, then lay it up again,
Till Christmas next return.

Part must be kept, wherewith to teend
The Christmas log next year;
And where 'tis safely kept, the fiend
Can do no mischief there.


The following is an extract from William Hone, The Every Day Book, 2 Vols. London: William Tegg, 1825, 1827 (Volume 1, December 25):

The holly and the ivy still maintain some mastery at this season. At the two universities, the windows of the college chapels are decked with laurel. The old Christmas carol in MS. at the British Museum, quoted at p. 1598, continues in the following words:—

Ivy hath a lybe; she laghtit with the cold,
So mot they all hafe that wyth Ivy hold.
——————Nay, Ivy! Nay, hyt, &c.

Holy hat berys as red as any Rose,
The foster the hunters, kepe hom from the doo.
——————Nay, Ivy! Nay, hyt, &c.

Ivy hath berys as black as any slo;
Ther com the oule and ete hum as she goo.
——————Nay, Ivy! Nay, hyt, &c.

Holy hath byrdys, aful fayre flok,
The Nyghtyngale, the Poppyngy, the gayntyl Lavyrok.
——————Nay, Ivy! Nay, hyt, &c.

Good Ivy! what byrdys ast thou!
Non but the howlet that kreye 'How! How!'
——————Nay, Ivy! Nay, hyt shall not, &c.

Mr. Brand infers from this, "that holly was used only to deck the inside of houses at Christmas: while ivy was used not only as a vintner's sign, but also among the evergreens at funerals." He also cites from the old tract, "Round about our Coal-fire, or Christmas Entertainments," that formerly "the rooms were embowered with holly, ivy, cyprus, bays, laurel, and misletoe, and a burning Christmas log in the chimney;" but he remarks, that "in this account the cyprus is quite a new article. Indeed I should as soon have expected to have seen the yew as the cypress used on this joyful occasion."

Mr. Brand is of opinion that "although Gay mentions the misletoe among those evergreens that were put up in churches, it never entered those sacred edifices but by mistake, or ignorance of the sextons; for it was the heathenish and profane plant, as having been of such distinction in the pagan rites of druidism, and it therefore had its place assigned it in kitchens, where it was hung up in great state with its white berries, and whatever female chanced to stand under it, the young man present either had a right or claimed one of saluting her, and of plucking off a berry at each kiss." He adds "I have made many diligent inquiries after the truth of this. I learnt at Bath that it never came into churches there. An old sexton at Teddington, in Middlesex, informed me that some misletoe was once put up in the church there, but was by the clergyman immediately ordered to be taken away." He quotes from the "Medallic History of Carausius," by Stukeley, who speaking of the winter solstice, our Christmas, says: "This was the most respectable festival of our druids called yule-tide; when misletoe, which they called all-heal, was carried in their hands and laid on their altars, as an emblem of the salutiferous advent of Messiah. The misletoe they cut off the trees with their upright hatchets of brass, called celts, put upon the ends of their staffs, which they carried in their hands. Innumerable are these instruments found all over the British Isles. The custom is still preserved in the north, and was lately at York. On the eve of Christmas-day they carry misletoe to the high altar of the cathedral and proclaim a public and universal liberty, pardon, and freedom to all sorts of inferior and even wicked people at the gates of the city towards the four quarters of heaven." This is only a century ago.

In an "Inquiry into the ancient Greek Game, supposed to have been invented by Palamedes," Mr. Christie speaks of the respect the northern nations entertained for the misletoe, and of the Celts and Goths being distinct in the instance of their equally venerating the misletoe about the time of the year when the sun approached the winter solstice. He adds, "we find by the allusion of Virgil, who compared the golden bough in infernis, to the misletoe, that the use of this plant was not unknown in the religious ceremonies of the ancients, particularly the Greeks, of whose poets he was the acknowledged imitator."

The cutting of the misletoe was a ceremony of great solemnity with our ancient ancestors. The people went in procession. The bards walked first singing canticles and hymns, a herald preceded three druids with implements for the purpose. Then followed the prince of the druids accompanied by all the people. He mounted the oak, and cutting the misletoe with a golden sickle, presented it to the other druids, who received it with great respect, and on the first day of the year distributed it among the people as a sacred and holy plant, crying, "The misletoe for the new year." Mr. Archdeacon Nares mentions, "the custom longest preserved was the hanging up of a bush of misletoe in the kitchen or servant's hall, with the charm attached to it, that the maid, who was not kissed under it at Christmas, would not be married in that year." This natural superstition still prevails.

Sources:

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