Celebrating the Wild Side of Yorkshire’s Coast & Country:
Mistletoe and more – time for that Christmas cheer
Christmas time is an interesting part of the Christian calendar. Lifted from a highly symbolic pagan seasonal festival centred on the celebration of the Winter Solstice, this event links to the sacredness of life and the fear of death. Its origins lie in the dark days of long winter nights and well before Sky TV and Celebrity Come Dancing. In the primal European forest, and in remote heaths and peat bogs across a desolate winter landscape, little stirred save for the occasional Reindeer in northern Lapland ‘spaced’ as it was on hallucinogenic mushrooms and observed by equally ‘high’ Sami reindeer Herders. In the dark, dismal forests further south, people huddled for warmth around a fire of peat or sometimes firewood and dreamed of spring and life returning.
The greenery, which remained in some of the plants particularly Mistletoe and Holly, clearly had magical properties to be revered. They alone held onto the living when all around was dead; symbols of life and of fertility to come. The local people would put their faith in the Green Man and in the hope that the gods of life and the living would return once the days got longer and the sun once again rose higher. Before computer games, electricity and TV this was the lot of people across Europe including around my native Sheffield. To cheer up and to brace themselves for the winter cold which lay ahead, they brought in the Yule Log to burn for weeks and keep the spirit of life with them, and they ate and drank to excess. The latter sounds familiar. Gifts and offerings made to gods and people, and brought communities together in celebration and to prepare for the year ahead.
Once Christianity established across Europe and throughout Britain, the church had a job to suppress old customs and encourage a new more focused worship in line with the Gospels. Realising the difficulties in trying to remove the old customs and celebrations, which were so deeply engrained, they cleverly adapted them to a new creed. This was a great strategy of what we would today describe as a ‘re-launch’ and a ‘re-branding’; a sort of a religious ‘New Labour’ or a visionary ‘coalition’; and it worked a treat. These winter celebrations became the great Christmas festivities and they lifted and plagiarised here there and everywhere. Add a few Reindeer, a stout chap giving out treats and food, get in a few German pine trees, and a very plump American bird, and hey, you have Christmas as we know it. Throw in a dash of Coca Cola and Walt Disney and you have a smiley plump gent all dolled up in red and the consumer dream is born.
In recent years, the festival has grown out of all proportion and well away from its deeply symbolic roots. Now it seems to be a feast of consumer excess with ‘carols’ vying with ‘Christmas singles’ plus decorations around from October onwards. To be fair, many people now depend for their living on this seasonal bonanza and many get positive benefit from retail therapy. There are the downsides though and I cannot help feeling that a bit more focus and a shorter period would be a good thing. We even have the benchmarks for the more dismal end of all this with things like the now infamously named ‘Crapland experience’ down in the New Forest a couple of years ago. Then if people are prepared to pay £35 each for that then I am not sure how sympathetic to be. The image of the elves sneaking out for a quick roll-up was amusing. After all, I am sure Santa did not smoke ordinary tobacco in his pipe but more probably ‘happy baccy’; otherwise how did he stay so jolly for so long.
So what is the answer to the dark Winter Solstice? Perhaps get out for a walk and renew your contact with nature. Try our local woods and our ancient ‘holly hags’ for a feel of those dark Christmas forests of the medieval past, or a therapeutic walk over our splendid moorlands. Enjoy!
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……………..I had a nice seasonal question from Reg Copeland just in time for Christmas. ‘Hi Ian, I have been walking the Moss Valley from Ford to Eckington, as I do most Sundays, but with the leaves now off the trees, I have noticed nearly every tree I passed had Ivy growing up it. In some cases, it is completely covering the trunk and branches so that it seems as if autumn has not yet arrived; the trees are still green. I know this area is very special to you as it is with us locals. You activated the Balsam pull campaign a few years ago, because of the threat to local flora, so is not this Ivy a similar threat to our trees? On some of the trees, there are signs of axe cuts, as if some attempt in the past has been made to chop off the Ivy at low trunk level. Am I worrying too much, or is this normal or should we start another type of balsam blitz?’
A holly woman
This is a very interesting question and decades back, foresters certainly took a dim view to Ivy growth. Ivy can compete with the trees own foliage for light and space, and therefore have an adverse effect on its growth. They are not actively parasitic in terms of withdrawing any nutrients from the tree though. In addition, Ivy can have a lot of associated wildlife interest – such as bats, nesting birds, and insects such as the Holly Blue Butterfly. Some of the Ivy plants, like the trees, may themselves qualify as ‘ancient’. Ivy seems to grow best in woods disturbed by forestry management, and then for some reason, abandoned. It also likes sheltered and especially more humid woods on south-west facing slopes. So much of the MossValley will be good Ivy habitat. Perhaps the first thing would be to do a survey to find out where the Ivy is and how old the plants might be.
Another plant that is typical of the Moss Valley and many other woods across the region is Holly, and again this is a species rapidly spreading at many sites. Interestingly we seem to regard this as benign even though it can blanket out native Bluebells and other rich woodland ground flora. If it was the exotic Rhododendron then I am sure there would be more fuss. However, Holly is here for historic reasons as once it was important to the rural economy and actively managed – coppiced or pollarded to provide winter herbage for livestock and deer. Many of our woods were Holly ‘hags’ or ‘hollins’. The name still resonates in many local road names and place names – Hollinsend, Holly Bank, Hag Side, the Hollins, Hollythorpe for example. Both Holly and Ivy have assumed great significance in modern Christmas celebrations, but their importance resonates back to a pagan past. These are wintergreen symbols of the maintenance of life, the living and future fertility through the long dark winters of the medieval Little Ice Age.
The tale of the Oak King and the Holly King is circular with no beginning or ending. Twice a year they battle to control of the land. At the Winter Solstice, the Oak King wins and the land green and verdant under his reign. With the Summer Solstice, the Holly King triumphs and the land gradually falls asleep and descends into darkness. Only the evergreens remind us of warmer times. The Holly, robust, prickly and masculine, was the male parallel to the feminine and clinging Ivy (I make no comment!). There are deep-seated resonances with pagan and especially druidic beliefs in the importance of wintergreen Mistletoe, and again like a tree bearing the latter it is considered unlucky to cut down a Holly Tree. Christianity, struggling to remove or suppress pagan beliefs by the common people, adopted pragmatic solutions. Churches are festooned with carvings of Green Men, and plants such as Holly and Oak, taken into and adapted for Christian rituals. The wreaths of Holly leaves with their red berries became Christ’s crown of thorns with the droplets of his blood.
More of winter solstice and Christmas cheer
Well, it is that time of year again, and yes, it seems to come around evermore quickly. Be it a Christian or ancient pagan remembrance, this is the time to celebrate life and hope, to usher out the old and welcome the new. Dark, long winter nights will soon begin to shorten and the time of the wintergreen Holly Man will be replaced by that of the spring-green, Oak Man. The annual cycle of the northern hemisphere goes on and around, good versus evil, darkness versus light, and with many analogies in literature and in folklore. The process and its significance in nature and in humanity are etched deeply into our psyche. Our ancestors, more obviously governed and dependent on nature’s rhythms were finely attuned to the seasons and their changes. Indeed, until relatively recently, as people relied on local resources and particularly on food production, would also be acutely aware of the seasons. Today, with Christmas mostly delivered by supermarket, department store, shopping mall, and the internet, people distanced and separated from their origins and nature, are mostly unaware of their heritage. Popular and iconic features of Christmas, such as the card and the tree, are relative newcomers that sprang into fashion with the Victorians. Our real traditions go back much further in to Yule Logs, winter greenery such as holly, and of course, mistletoe, symbols of life and fertility.
A mistletoe lady
We do not get much mistletoe this far north, but readers do occasionally send me records or photographs. It was said that to fell a tree bearing mistletoe was to incur the wrath of the gods and draw down a druidic curse. This was some comfort many years ago when our regional survey turned up mistletoe in some lime trees on a street in Barnsley, but the workmen cut them down. The local people, protested but too late, the trees were felled. However, the perpetrators were cursed; or at least that would be the druid viewpoint and who was I to question it? Generally, our mistletoes grow on garden fruit trees, particularly apple, often introduced deliberately. They are found wild, but much less so, in northern and eastern parts of Britain, and favour especially, the native limes. Down in regions like Essex and Suffolk, or Herefordshire and Gloucestershire, the trees are festooned. I wonder if any trees felled recently along our roads might have had mistletoe in the higher branches; if so, then, beware the curse!
Otherwise, just celebrate and enjoy the short, dark days and long, even darker nights! There is probably Dr Who, Downton Drabby and much more to look forwards to, so enjoy.
Ian D. Rotherham, Writer, Broadcaster, Professor of Environmental Geography, Reader in Tourism & Environmental Change