Hollies may very well be the source of Christmas' red and white "color scheme." (Photo by Hannah Mazzaccaro)

Hollies may very well be the source of Christmas’ red and white “color scheme.” (Photo by Hannah Mazzaccaro)

by Mike Weilbacher

For a naturalist like me, one of the pleasures of the Christmas season is that we decorate homes and offices with innumerable nods to nature: evergreen boughs and trees, reindeer, snow, mistletoe, holly. Ever wonder why?

Go back thousands of years to a time when there was little, if any, science. People saw life seemingly dying around them – trees dropping their eaves, bushes bare, flowers gone. Animals were disappearing too – frogs, turtles, snakes, woodchucks, bats, butterflies, mosquitoes, all vanishing. And while we know today that some migrate to southern climes and others hibernate deep underground, the ancients didn’t know about that. The animals just, well, disappeared. It was as if nature’s green fuse was being snuffed out, and it was unclear if that fire would ever be relit.

On top of this, the world was getting darker this time of year: the sun set earlier and earlier every day, daylight itself seemingly vanishing, and each day was colder than the one before.

The earth was dying.

So mythologies arose in cultures across the northern hemisphere to explain what was happening, stories about brave heroes slaying the dragons that were holding nature captive, or fables featuring fearless animals grabbing pieces of the sun and flying back to the north with light and heat. One common theme in these stories, and the celebrations that arose around the stories, was the loss of sunlight during winter, and burning of large fires to urge the light to return. Persians burned big wooden effigies of Tiamat the dragon that slayed nature; Scandinavians burned massive bonfires so the gods would see.

But another theme is the evergreen. In a world where everything is apparently dying, evergreens possess some kind of special magic, thumbing their metaphorical noses at the unforgiving gods of winter. So people began bringing these special plants into their homes, praying whatever magic the plants possess would infuse their homes as well.

Hollies are even better. They not only retain their deep-green deciduous leaves in winter – unlike all the other broadleaf plants – but they also sport bright red berries to boot. Leaves AND fruit in winter – this plant must be doubly powerful. Hollies became even more special, and ultimately the symbol of the solstice, and when Christmas begins being celebrated, the symbol transfers to the new holiday, lending Christmas its official red-and-green color scheme.

Which also explains mistletoe. In Europe, mistletoe is a parasitic flowering plant growing high up in trees, balls clumping on branches, the plant using tree branches to get sunlight. It’s rooted not in soil but on branches, is evergreen in the winter, and better, has bright white – and poisonous! – berries in winter as well. To the ancients, especially those Druids of Stonehenge fame, mistletoe had magic on par with holly. It’s got leaves and fruits in the winter – and doesn’t even need soil.

Norse mythology holds that a shaft of mistletoe was used by that crazy god Loki to kill Odin’s son Baldur, whom he loathed. Frigg, Baldur’s devastated mother cried tears that turned into mistletoe berries, and the Norse decreed that mistletoe would never again be used as a weapon, and Frigg herself would kiss anyone who passed beneath it.

Which we still do today. And who is this Frigg, you ask? Only the goddess for whom Friday, Frigg’s day, is named, of course.

So have fun decorating your home and office with nature’s symbols of the seasons, and remember that so many of the symbols are based on terrified people unsure that nature would ever return in the spring. Oddly enough, in today’s climate challenged world, it’s unlike if winter itself will ever come back – might the next snowfall be our last?

And those bonfires we burned long ago as signals to the gods morphed into Advent wreaths with their candles, Hanukah menorahs, and the lights we string across our homes and around our trees, bright lights in the incredibly dark world of winter. (Hanukah, we should note, begins on the new moon, the one night with no moon at all. So Hanukah begins on the darkest night of the darkest month; think that’s a coincidence? Those ancient rabbis were sharp astronomers!)

Whichever holiday you celebrate, Christmas, Hanukah or Kwanzaa, joyous holidays to you.

Mike Weilbacher directs the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education, tweets @SCEEMike, and can be reached at mike@schuylkillcenter.org.

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