The Ancient World is All Around You This Christmas
~ Samantha Lewis
When we talk Christmas ‘green’ in this article, we talk about…plants. In fact, there are more plants tied to Christmas and the holiday season than any other we celebrate. And these particular plants not only bring with them a sense of calm, peace, tranquility, and even have the power to provide a little spark in the romance department, but they also have incredibly interesting histories of being celebrated by one and all while helping those in need.
Whether it is holly, mistletoe, ivy, or yew – every single one of these plants were once huge ingredients to having a real celebration. Talking from a scientific perspective, these greens hold incredible medicinal properties. And when it comes to faith or religion, these greens have played starring roles in midwinter festivals that continue to be held since ancient times.
Written and recorded back in the 4th and 5th centuries, the Romans and Greeks would use the holly, the ivy branch, and the mistletoe to celebrate the winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere, which was the start of the Roman festival of Saturnalia. As Romans are known for, this festival dedicated to winter allowed for everyone to drink and eat, sing and dance, and basically not worry about anything. The Roman abodes would be covered in evergreens and decorated with holly; both plants were seen as signs of friendship and kindness for one’s neighbor. In fact, the boughs of holly and the strands of evergreen used back then are where most people believe our present décor for Christmas first originated.
Ivy is another appreciated and popular plant for the Christmas season. Long ago, with the Greeks and the Romans (the creators of everything, it seems, when it comes to our past), used ivy in their garlands that they wore to celebrate life. It was also a plant that was a great help to merchants way back when. You see, ivy was said to be a favorite of Dionysus, the Greco-Roman god of wine. So branches of evergreen ivy were actually tied to poles outside a building or business to let others know that wine was sold there.
No matter who you ask, however, most everyone will say that mistletoe is the one ‘green’ that they associate most with Christmas. But centuries ago, mistletoe was far more than a plant hung from the ceiling for the benefit of allowing people to find romance as they kissed under it. Mistletoe had many uses once upon a time. Highly celebrated, Druids actually treated oak trees with respect and admiration. And when any leaves grew on the oak tree or tree branches, they would believe that the gift was sent from heaven. But when mistletoe appeared on the branches, which it did only on very rare occasions, the ceremonies grew even larger. It was almost as if the finder of such a treasure believed they had been blessed.
The addition of mistletoe in drinks was also used back then as a cure for many illnesses. Mistletoe became almost as magical as Christmas back in the Greek ages, when a famous Greek physician, Dioscorides, wrote down his ideas and revelations about mistletoe; revelations that allowed him to become renowned as one of the ancient world’s most intelligent herbalists. Even the historical, Pliny the Elder, found that mistletoe could help with treating sores, curing epilepsy, and more. In 2014 modern medicine, these ideas are more magical than real, but then again, “magic” is a term that definitely describes Christmas.
So as you walk the sidewalks of the neighborhood this season and view the sparkling decorations; or, you head to a Christmas party to wish everyone joy and good health – remember to take a look around you. The evergreen, the holly, the ivy…that mistletoe that is just waiting there for you to use in order to give a kiss of forever to the one you love…remember that all of these plants are part of a very magical, ancient world where belief, faith and hope in something as simple as a plant was the way of life.
Enjoy the décor. Enjoy the kiss under the mistletoe. And, most of all, enjoy a safe, peaceful and promising holiday.