These symbols have been adorning our Christmas celebrations for centuries…why?
Mistletoe is a parasitic plant that grows mostly on hardwood trees, absorbing its nutrients. The waxy red or white berries can be poisonous and its pointy, leathery leaves remain green throughout the year.
There are many myths surrounding this ancient plant. The Vikings of the eighth century believed that mistletoe could resurrect the dead. The first century Druids of Britain believed that mistletoe could perform miracles, from curing diseases to protecting oneself from witchcraft to increasing fertility. The Celts hung mistletoe in their homes for good luck and to ward off evil spirits. In fact they believed in its potency for luck so much that it was said that if enemies met in the woods beneath mistletoe, they would lay down their arms and a truce would be called until the next day. This led to the practice of mistletoe being suspended over doorways for luck.
For years after Christianity had overtaken Europe as the major religion, these practices were forbidden as being pagan. However, during the Victorian era, mistletoe made a comeback in English homes, and were hung again over doorways. If someone was found to be standing under mistletoe, they would be kissed by someone else in the room, a custom very otherwise uncharacteristic in Victorian society.
In “The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.” author Washington Irving in 1820 describes memories of Christmas Eve:
The Yule-clog and Christmas candle were regularly burnt, and the mistletoe with its white berries hung up, to the imminent peril of all the pretty housemaids.
Holly was the sacred plant of the Roman god of harvest, Saturn. During the feast of Saturnalia, Roman citizens would exchange gifts of holly wreaths with each other Many centuries later, to avoid persecution, Christians would pick up this tradition and decorate their homes during the Roman festival.
The holly plant has come to stand for peace and joy, and was once believed to frighten off witches. Sprigs of holly were also put on the bedpost as this was believed to bring about sweet dreams. In Germany, a piece of holly that has been used in church decorations is regarded as a charm against lightning.
As time passed and Christians grew to embrace more pagan customs as their own, holly became more associated with Christmas and less with pagan traditions, gaining mainstream acceptance.
Next: Yule logs and Christmas trees