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A Green Christmas

By Audrey Stallsmith

laurus nobilis

A green Christmas makes a full graveyard.

Old saying

The above grim prediction refers to the belief that an unusually mild winter causes more disease. But Christmas is always green, in the sense that plants are always included in the celebration of Christ’s birth. This wasn’t always the case. In the early days of Christendom, believers were discouraged from decorating with evergreens because it was considered a pagan custom.

That prohibition didn’t last long. By the 1600’s, Robert Herrick was writing in an apparently post-holiday poem:

Down with the rosemary and so,
Down with the baies and mistletoe,
Down with the holly, ivie all,
Wherewith ye deck the Christmas hall.

In the following century, Robert Steele commented satirically on the “decking” of churches: “The Pulpit itself has such Clusters of Ivy, Holly, and Rosemary about it that a light Fellow in our Pew took Occasion to say that The Congregation heard the Word out of a Bush, like Moses.”

The tradition of bringing boughs indoors at the winter solstice probably originated with the Roman feast of Saturnalia that ran from December 17 to 24 each year. During this evergreen-decked festival, business ceased, all classes were temporarily equal, and gifts were exchanged.

Since I have written other articles on rosemary and mistletoe, I won’t comment farther on them here—except to refer you to those articles at the following links: Rosemary: The Rite Herb and Under the Mistletoe.

The sweet bay pictured above is the ancient laurel, also called lorbeer or daphne, which wreathed the brows of heroes and poets and stands for “glory.” The word “bachelor” in our college degrees comes from “bacca-laureus” or “laurel-berry’ through the French bachelier.

Bay still flavors soups and stews. A tea made from the berries was once recommended for poisonous bites and stings, to prevent contagious diseases, to alleviate cold, flu, and allergy symptoms, and to relieve gas. Applied externally, bay oil treated bruises, sunburn, itches, eczema, earache, and arthritis pain. The berries were also given to women in childbirth, but should never be consumed by pregnant women prior to that since they may cause premature delivery.

Holly has been considered a symbol of Christ’s sufferings, because it sports both thorns—as in the crown of thorns—and red berries, like drops of blood. So it has been called Christ’s thorn or holy tree as well as holver bush, holme, or holme chase.

Representing “foresight,” holly was considered a man’s plant. Perhaps that explains the pro-holly bias in the following Christmas carol!

The holly and the ivy,
When they are both full grown,
Of all the trees that are in the wood,
The holly bears the crown.

Actually, holly requires both a male and a female plant to set berries--and only the female produces fruit. Whoever had the "foresight" to bring the Christmas holly into the home, however, would supposedly dominate (or assume the masculine role) during the following year.

As with mistletoe, the most extensive use for holly was in birdlime, a sticky substance for trapping birds made from the rotted and pounded bark. Holly leaves were also brewed as a tea substitute and to treat catarrh, pleurisy, smallpox, fevers, rheumatism, jaundice, and broken bones. Holly berries are poisonous, however, and may cause vomiting if consumed.

Ivy represented woman in the Christmas decorating scheme. It also stood for intoxicating beverages. Besides being the symbol of Bacchus, the Roman god of wine, it was often featured on English tavern signs to indicate the excellence of the liquors served within. The ancients believed that the porous ivy wood could filter wine from water.

Scandanavians chose to quaff their meads around roaring December fires while entertaining each other with tall tales. Those fires supposedly encouraged the weak sun. That orb was believed to be a wheel which actually stood still for a period during the winter. The wheel was called hweol, from which we get “yule”. The yule log might be considered a more recent version of those ancient fires.

The log was always hauled in on Christmas Eve and lit with a piece saved from the previous year’s log. Thomas Cooper wrote:

They pile the yule-log on the hearth,
Soak toasted crabs in ale
And while they sip, their homely mirth
Is joyous as if the whole earth
For man was void of bale.

The crabs mentioned were crabapples. In England the yule log was usually an ash tree, since the baby Jesus was supposed to have been first washed and clothed before a hurried ash fire made by the shepherds. Ash is one of the few woods that will burn well and without smoking when green. Perhaps its relationship to the olive tree also gave it almost-Biblical status.

And what, you may ask, of the Christmas tree? It originated in Germany where it was decorated with paper roses, fruits with gilded leaves, wafers, and sweets. These days the tree employed is usually fir or pine, standing for “time” and “pity” respectively or hemlock which predicts, “You will be the death of me.”

The latter interpretation probably arose from a mistaken impression that the hemlock tree caused Socrates death. (He was, in fact, executed with poison hemlock—a wild biennial plant.) A tea made from the inner bark of evergreens has been used to treat lung and kidney problems, but even the tree hemlock should not be consumed by pregnant women.

The pagan traditions mixed into our Christmas celebrations do not particularly bother me. You can, after all, attach any symbolism you choose to a plant. For me, the evergreens stand for the eternal life gifted to us when God was a baby and even time itself turned upside down!

Laurus nobilis image is from Kohler's Medizinal-Pflanzen, courtesy of the Missouri Botanical Garden.