Cold and barren it may be but colourful traditions around the Solstice – expertly adopted by the Christian Church – make this a time of hope and glory, says Sir Johnny Scott

With the days shortening and darkness descending, midwinter can be a bleak time. But the colourful winter solstice traditions, expertly woven into our culture by the Christian Church, make it Sir Johnny Scott’s favourite time of year.

There is nothing as synonymous with Christmas as holly. But why do the spiky leaves and red berries appear everywhere at this time of year – featuring in our songs, home decor, cards and even atop the Christmas pud? Read holly: it wears the crown for more on this festive symbol.

WINTER SOLSTICE TRADITIONS

“O dirty December, for Christmas remember” (Thomas Tusser, 1524-80). Of all the months, December is my favourite. I love the bleak beauty of gaunt, leafless trees, the barren, lifeless landscape and ancient, musty smell of decay. December is the glorious colours of a cock pheasant glinting in thin winter sunshine as it rockets out of cover, the music and pageantry of hounds in full cry and the eerie sound of a multitude of geese rising from their shore roost in a lapis lazuli dawn. We should expect a hard frost with the full moon at the beginning of the month and an influx of little plump waxwings from Northern Europe and Scandinavia. A “waxwing warning” presages a band of freezing weather, when an “irruption” of these noisy birds with red tips to their wings and distinctive crests arrive, stripping the last autumn berries. The ghostly sound of tawny owls calling to each other is synonymous with freezing, moonlit nights, Shakespeare’s: “Then nightly sings the staring owl, Tu whit; Tu who.” These sounds are the contact calls of a male and female as the cock bird begins his courtship feeding, bringing food for the larger hen to build her up for early breeding.

There is an almost tangible sense of brooding expectancy lying across the land as nature senses a change in the season. The hours of daylight are at their shortest and temperatures their lowest. For the next four months, the battle for survival among wildlife is at its most severe. The hibernants are snug but everything else, except raptors, struggles by on body fat stored over the summer and autumn glut and what little can be found through the lean winter months, whilst predators reap the benefit of their prey’s weakened condition. The longest night is on 21 December and the dawn of the winter solstice, with its imperceptibly lengthening hours of daylight, has been celebrated by mankind for many millennia before the birth of Christ with winter solstice traditions

The early Church was shrewd at converting the heathen population of these islands to Christianity by gradually superimposing an appropriate Christian celebration, such as a saint’s day, on top of the many pagan seasonal festivals. In time, the 12-day fertility festival worshipping the Unconquered Sun, which began with the winter solstice known as Saturnalia in southern Europe and Yule in the north, with its uninhibited banqueting, bonfires, drunkenness, abandoned dancing and sacrifices, became the festival of Christ’s nativity. The Feast of St Thomas is on 21 December but until the calendar reforms of Pope Gregory XIII were adopted by Britain in 1752, the winter solstice was on the 13th, St Lucy’s Day. The start of the Christmas festivities was an occasion for great celebration, with bonfires, dancing, merry making and the essential evergreen decorations of holly, ivy, yew and mistletoe, crucial elements in the old pagan festivals.

For our Neolithic ancestors, the sight of a holly tree, standing lush, green and aglow with scarlet berries when all other plant life had died, would have been an emblem of hope, a comforting assurance that the ritual bonfires and sacrifices were doing their stuff and a promise from the deities that spring really would come again, bringing warmth, fecundity and new life. To add to the mystique, holly most commonly grows in the understorey of oak woodlands, where few plants can survive the overhang of a mature tree. Oaks were sacred to the Druids for being the hosts to mistletoe, the wondrous “Golden Bough”, and they believed that once the leaves fell from the oak, its spirit moved to the holly growing nearby.

Because of its significance to pagan beliefs, holly became more Christianised than any other plant; the Church claimed the red berries represented Christ’s blood at the crucifixion and the spiky leaves the crown of thorns. This notion became so ingrained that holly became known as Christ’s Thorn or Holy Tree, the name William Turner, the Elizabethan natural historian, gives in his New Herball of 1568. Essentially, from the perspective of the early converts, the traditional use of holly, ivy and other winter evergreens was not eliminated from Christmas church services, as a rather cryptic entry in the ancient calendar of the Church of Rome suggests: “Templa exornantur” – churches are decked. Indeed, the Church of St Margaret, in the grounds of Westminster Abbey, was still defiantly being decorated with winter evergreens in 1647, the year Christmas was banned by ordinance of the Puritan Parliament as, “a popish festival with no biblical justification”.

Of all the symbols of Christmas, none is more evocative of the spirit of goodwill, peace and joy than holly; it is the principal illustration on thousands of Christmas cards, the centrepiece of wreaths, decorates homes and no flaming Christmas plum pudding is properly dressed without a sprig of holly berries browning in the flames.