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Nov/Dec 2023

 

 

FESTIVE FOLIAGE

 

Three of the plants most closely associated with Christmas can be found growing at the Rec. They are Holly, Ivy and Mistletoe. All are evergreen and retain their foliage throughout the winter months, and all are steeped in folklore and mythology. They also feature in carols, literature, pop songs and art, and not least in the most celebrated of Christmas books: A Christmas Carol. Dickens describes the appearance of the Ghost of Christmas Present in a room ‘hung with living green’ with ’bright gleaming berries’ and ‘crisp leaves of holly, mistletoe and ivy’.

 

 IVY. Hedera helix, literally meaning to grasp and twist in Latin, describes the plant’s mode of growth, and it’s this feature that often gives ivy a bad name. But contrary to popular belief, it isn’t actually parasitic, and the suckers it puts out are there to give support as it climbs, rather than absorb nutrients from its host. Unsurprisingly, it’s this very tenacity and vigorous growth that has given the ivy symbolic meanings of faithfulness, eternal life, friendship and endurance, in many different cultures. It’s a plant closely associated with the Greek god of wine, Dionysus (known as Bacchus by the Romans) and he’s often depicted draped in ivy, or wearing an ivy wreath. It was believed that such a wreath helped to prevent the wearer from getting drunk……..a remedy I can’t personally vouch for!! The Greeks held that Dionysus was born in December, and this happened to coincide with the winter solstice; two good reasons for wild celebrations involving lots of Bacchanalian drunkenness, debauchery ………and presumably not too many ivy wreaths!! it was partly in an effort to detract from these pagan gatherings that Pope Julius I declared the official birthdate of Jesus to be 25th December, way back in the 4th Century AD…..and that’s when we’ve celebrated it ever since. It was traditionally held that it was unlucky to bring ivy into the house, except at Christmas and then only if paired with other plants.

 

  HOLLY Ilex aquifolium. A familiar plant of the countryside whose Latin name, aquifolium, refers to its ‘sharp leaves. The holly has male and female flowers on separate plants and it‘s only the female one that bears the bright red berries. Unfortuantely, I think that most of those occurring at the Rec are male bushes, so not too many berries. Holly was deemed to be a symbol of strength, protection and good fortune, and for Christians a symbol of the crown of thorns and the blood (as represented by the berries), at Jesus’s crucifixion. It was also thought to ward off fairies, witches and lightening strikes, and unlike ivy, was lucky when brought into the house. Pagan beliefs in decorating their dwellings with holly as a means of protection, may be the precursor to us ‘Decking the halls with boughs of Holly’ at Christmas. Druids also believed that the Holly King ruled over half the year from the summer to winter solstice, before being was defeated by the Oak King who took over for the remaining six months. Mummers’ plays that occur around the Christmas period, often incorporate this myth.

 

 MISTLETOE. Viscum album. The ‘album’ is Latin for white; the colour of the waxy berries borne by this hemiparisitic plant. It grows on a number of different trees but is most closely associated with apple trees. It prefers to be in the open, rather than shaded woodland, and the large spheres of foliage can be best be seen in winter when the host tree has lost its leaves. It grows in abundance in some of the trees in the Rec and does appear to have weakened one or two of them, but it’s of huge value to wildlife and plays an important part in the ecosystem. Mistletoe features in Celtic, Norse and Greek mythology and symbolises vitality, peace fertility and a multitude of other attributes. It features in a Norse tale in which a goddess, Frigg, loses her son, Baldur, when he is duplicitously killed by an arrow made of mistletoe; the only plant that Frigg had failed to use her magic on. Her tears are said to have turned to white berries and in some versions Frigg then declarers the mistletoe to be a symbol of love. Could this have started the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe? No-one seems certain as to the origin of this Christmas custom. The earliest written reference comes from a song published in England in 1784. It was then enthusiastically taken up by the Georgians and Victorians, and is still practised today All 3 of these plants are extremely valuable for wildlife as well as having rich, ancient symbolism. A number of the beliefs and customs associated with them are still with us today and help shape many of our Christmas traditions.

 

Words and paintings by Denise Long

 

 

 

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