Many of Britain's favourite Christmas traditions, from burning a yule log to kissing under the mistletoe, date back to ancient history writes Sir Johnny Scott
In the hall of the rambling Elizabethan farmhouse of my childhood was a wide, inglenook fireplace. Every Christmas Eve, the gardener drag-ged in an enormous Yule log, balancing it with much heaving and grunting across the fire dogs. This would be lit by the remaining piece of the previous year’s log and the fire had to burn for the 12 days of Christmas. A roaring log fire when outside all is in the grip of bleak mid-winter and the wind thunders in the chimney is as much a part of Christmas Eve as the tree, the decorations and the holly, ivy and mistletoe. And as with so many of our Christmas traditions, its origins predate Christianity by at least a millennium.
The winter solstice, the shortest day and the longest night, occurs around 21 December and for a period of about a fortnight, our Neolithic ancestors and the Iron Age Celts lit huge bonfires to conquer the darkness and held sacrifices in a desperate plea for the sun to be reborn, bringing its promise of light, warmth, regrowth and fecundity. The tradition of burning a Yule log came to these islands after the collapse of the Roman Empire and the influx of tribes from Scandinavia. An entire tree trunk of oak or ash with the branches lopped off was dragged into the great halls of tribal Saxon chiefs and one end placed in the open fires. The halls were decorated with evergreens, holly, ivy and mistletoe, a custom inherited from the Roman mid-winter festival of Saturnalia, and during the 12 days of feasting to celebrate the return of the sun, the trunk was gradually fed into the fire so that it burnt continuously.
Endless superstitions were attached to it: the sparks spiralling upwards were believed to represent the successful birth of different species of livestock; the ash protected the house from natural disasters and if mixed with water, was a general cure-all for both humans and animals. Difficulty in lighting the Yule log was considered ominous; if the flames cast a person’s shadow without the head, it presaged their death in the coming year and it was a complete calamity for everyone if the fire went out.
We have the Church to thank for preserving the ancient pagan seasonal festivals that are now part of the Christian calendar – Christmas, Easter, May Day, St Valentine’s Day and harvest festivals, to name only a few. The main thrust of Christianity in Britain started in AD595, when Pope Gregory sent a mission of 40 monks led by Augustine, prior of St Anthony’s Abbey in Rome and later the first Archbishop of Canterbury, from Rome to England, with instructions to convert the heathen inhabitants. Augustine was advised that the only hope of success was to allow the outward form of the old pagan ceremonies and beliefs to remain intact, but wherever possible to superimpose Christian ceremonies on them. Pope Gregory’s mandate of conversion through coercion was brilliant in its simplicity and he surmised, accurately, that the easy-going Saxons would not object if the seasonal festivals of the heathen calendar were Christianised, as long as no one stopped them celebrating. Gradually, over several centuries, the principal pagan feasts became days honouring the life of Christ or one of the saints, but the most important of them all, the great winter festival of fire and light, of new life and lengthening days, was so deeply enshrined in the hearts of the population that the Church adopted it as the pre-eminent day in its own calendar.
Except in the great country houses, with their hungry fireplaces big enough to accommodate an enormous chunk of wood capable of burning for the 12 days of Christmas, hearths became smaller, so the Yule log was cut to fit and only required to stay alight overnight. With the population increasingly urbanised after the Industrial Revolution and fireplaces yet smaller, wood was replaced by coal and the Yule log simply became a table centrepiece surrounded by candles and decorated with holly and ivy. In the late 19th century, the ever-popular Yule log cake or Bûche de Noël began to be sold by confectioners. The invention of this chocolate Swiss roll made of génoise sponge, filled with butter cream and decorated to resemble a Yule log, is attributed to Pierre Lacam, at one time pastry chef to Charles III of Monaco.
Of all the berry-bearing winter evergreens we use to decorate our homes at Christmas, which the ancients ardently hoped were assurances from the gods that spring would eventually return, mistletoe carried the most significance. Mistletoe is, by any standards, one of nature’s phenomena: a hemiparasite that uses the host plant as a growing platform, colonising soft-barked deciduous trees, especially apple but also hawthorn, blackthorn, lime, poplar, maple, willow, plum, rowan, crab apple and occasionally oak. Mistletoe growing on oaks in the sacred oak groves of the Druids was the ‘Golden Bough’ of Celtic legend and held in great reverence by them. One can imagine the impact on superstitious early man, believing all plant life had ceased, suddenly seeing a clump of growth with green leaves and yellow berries glowing like a golden mist in a shaft of sunlight, high in the bare, lifeless branches of an oak tree. A startling confirmation that the ritual bonfires and sacrifices were doing their stuff; that spring really would come again, bringing warmth, fruitfulness and new life.
Mistletoe and its association with fertility featured prominently at the Roman festival of Saturnalia honouring Saturn, the deity of agriculture, when all the accepted codes of conduct were reversed; men dressed as women and masters as servants. There were pageants, uninhibited banqueting, bonfires and abandoned dancing; houses and streets were decorated with mistletoe, holly, ivy or other evergreens, and ‘strenae’, twigs of laurel, holly or mistletoe with sweetmeats attached, were given as gifts.
Arrow of mistletoe
In Norse mythology, the son of Odin, Baldur the Beautiful, was killed by an arrow made from mistletoe and his grieving mother, Frigg, goddess of love and beauty, banished the plant to the tops of trees. When Baldur came back to life, Frigg made mistletoe a symbol of peace and love, hence the tradition among Norse and Germanic Celts that enemies meeting under mistletoe would accept a truce until the following day and this custom is believed to be the origin of kissing under the mistletoe. In the early Middle Ages, Kissing Boughs made from two bisecting wooden hoops woven with holly, ivy, laurel and rosemary, with a bunch of mistletoe suspended from them and hung from a doorway, became popular Christmas decorations, with kissing under the bough being part of the jolly Christmas gambols.
Curiously, where the Church tolerated churches decorated with evergreens at Christmas, mistletoe was anathematised because of its association to the Druids, except in York Minster. The descendants of Viking settlers clung to their pagan customs and for many centuries a Mistletoe Service was held on the cathedral steps where York’s miscreants sought absolution beneath a branch of mistletoe held aloft by a priest. A sprig of mistletoe still decorates the high altar during the 12 days as a reminder of ancient customs and the spirit of reconciliation, love and repentance.
Among the symbols of Christmas, none is more synonymous with the season of goodwill, peace and joy than holly, with its shiny, dark-green spiky leaves and brilliant, blood-red berries. It is everywhere: sung about in carols; the principal illustration on thousands of Christmas cards; the centrepiece of wreaths. It decorates homes and no flaming Christmas plum pudding is properly dressed without a sprig browning in the flames. Since the 1850s, when the Victorians created Christmas as we know it today, tons of holly have been auctioned annually at the famous Tenbury Wells Holly and Mistletoe auction.
The sight of a holly tree, standing lush, green and aglow with scarlet berries in the midst of midwinter barrenness, would have been a god-given emblem of hope. 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. The Druids believed that once the leaves fell from a sacred oak, its spirit moved to the holly growing nearby. The early Christian converts decorated their houses with holly and evergreens during the Saturnalia and Yule revels, as much out of previous habit as protection from persecution. The custom persisted as Christianity spread and holly became more Christianised than any other plant, with the Church claiming 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 A New Herball of 1568.
No two plants have been more closely linked than holly and ivy. Song was an important part of pagan winter solstice festivals and these were to become semi-religious ballads – the origin of our Christmas carols – in which a quixotic relationship between the holly tree and the ivy plant appear to have been a popular topic. Ivy, with its black winter berries, was held in high esteem by early people; it was dedicated to Bacchus, the Roman god of drunkenness and its leaves, either bound round the brow or added to wine, were believed to prevent intoxication. It was an emblem of fidelity and, for that reason, in ancient Greece, priests always presented newly-weds with a wreath of ivy after the marriage ceremony.
From the early Middle Ages up to the Interregnum, when Christmas was banned between 1649 and 1660 by Cromwell’s Puritan Parliament as ‘a popish festival with no biblical justification’, any number of ballads, poems and love songs were written about the two plants. Henry VIII even wrote one alluding to his love for a ‘lady true’ enduring, as holly and ivy retain their evergreen vibrancy despite the harshest winter. Singing contests between men and women were a common Christmas pastime, with men extolling the virtues of the ‘masculine’ qualities of holly, whilst women praised the ‘feminine’ qualities of ivy. One of the earliest examples from the 14th century is among the Harleian Collection of manuscripts in the British Library. Everyone’s favourite Christmas carol, The Holly and the Ivy, undoubtedly dates from this period.
Happy Christmas – and ‘lang may yer lum reek’!