Signs of the Season
The “festivus” trappings seem to be everywhere I go these days, from the street to the library and the mall to the neighbourhood houses, and I wish we would keep the lights up longer. It’s like there’s all this colour and glitter and celebration in December then we hit January and it’s such a downer, take down the decor and lights and get through winter. I realize intellectually that Yule has passed and the days are getting longer, we look towards Imbolc, but you know, it’s still a long stretch to those early blossoms. So maybe this year I will leave up some mini lights indoors and take them down in spring. Speaking of embellishments, as it’s the season, let’s dig into some of the lore around decor that surrounds us.
Mistletoe is a shrub that grows on the branches of deciduous trees, the leaves grow in round bunches and produce poisonous white berries that ripen in December. It’s associated with the sun, masculine energy, love, protection, health, fertility, love goddesses, the element air, and the season. The white berries were seen as a symbol (the seed) of the Oak God and therefore very sacred to the Druids, especially if found growing on an oak tree. Mistletoe had to be harvested with a golden sickle, using one swipe and had to be caught before reaching the ground, it was a really bad omen to drop it! Some sources say it was harvested at Midsummer others say it was at Winter Solstice, perhaps it was both times for different purposes. Lore says wearing a mistletoe necklace makes you invisible, a key made from mistletoe opens every lock, putting it in the bedroom or under the bed brings peaceful sleep, and put some in the baby’s crib to stop the faeries swapping your babe for a changeling. Wearing a string of mistletoe protects one from disease, poisoning, helps fertility, and brings luck to the wearer. Placing mistletoe high up in the house, from the ceiling or mantle brings good fortune to the household, and guards against lightning, fire, floods and all manner of ills. Take a sprig when hunting to bring the Lord of the Hunt’s blessing and if you want to know who your future husband will be, sleep with it under your pillow. Burning mistletoe is thought to drive out all negativity, and it was sometimes used as a fumigant during outbreaks of illness, herbalists used it to treat convulsions and as a tranquilizer too. And let’s not forget the kissing; kissing under a plant related to the god, fertility, and good luck would naturally invite good fortune If a woman refused to kiss a man under the mistletoe she would remain unmarried for at least a year, I see this as a modern gender neutral issue, kissing under the mistletoe invites the gods blessing. That being said, to refuse kissage from your lover while under the plant was thought to bring ruin to the relationship, since you were spurning the god’s blessing.
Holly is another plant associated with masculine energy, if mistletoe is the God’s plant then holly is the mortal mans, it has associations with mars, the sun, and the element of fire. Holly is in the Celtic Tree Alphabet where it stands for “T” and “Tinne”, it warms the heart in winter, with its evergreen leaves and bright red berries. The plant protects against lightning, poison, malevolence, sorcerers, evil intent, and brings good luck, especially to men. If a wild beast is chasing you throwing a sprig of holly at it is thought to make it stop and leave you alone, and holly water was used the same way as holy water. Holly brings good luck to the house at Yule, it keeps bad weather away and protects homes from storms, and perhaps that’s why cutting down a holly tree brings misfortune to the feller. Holly axes and clubs were standard tools for tests of strength and bravery in many Celtic traditions; Curoi mac Daire challenged the heroes of Ulster to a beheading game using these tools. Druids wear holly wreaths at Yule, the plant represents both the everlasting love and power of the God as well as the blood of sacrifice; some traditions have adopted holly as a female plant with berries representing menses. In some Christian traditions the holly berries were formed from Christ’s blood, it’s a colourful and festive plant whatever the story.
Decorating with evergreen swags, garlands, and pine cones are all common sights. In general pine is a masculine tree, associated with air and money, protection, healing, fertility and cleansing. Burning pine needles during winter is thought to clean the air and drive out illness and negativity, some folks place pine crosses or sun wheels on their door or fireplace for the same reason. Pinecones are a symbol of fertility and longevity, eating one pine nut everyday is thought to prolong life. Pine wands are thought to be powerful for cutting through negativity, and pine infusions added to water cleanse everything. Fir trees share the same properties of removing negative influences; however the association with healing and adding strength to a person is more prominent, fir is also known to give endurance and to warm the heart more than pine.
The Yule tree seems to be more of a Germanic custom than a British/Celtic one, though tying tokens on sacred trees to carry wishes and blessings to the Gods or loved ones is very ancient. Winter Solstice is about celebrating the return of the sun, son, light and the evergreen is a god symbol, so putting light on a tree makes sense in my world. History says that Christmas Trees didn’t exist in the England until Prince Albert married Queen Victoria and brought the custom from his native Germany. Then again we know that recorded history usually doesn’t tell the whole story.
Just a reminder that mistletoe and holly are poison to little people and pets, so decorate, enjoy and be safe!