A Berry Merry Christmas

Some of the songs we hear for weeks on end, before we actually get anywhere near to Christmas, are full of references to plants we associate with the festive season. The Holly and the Ivy is probably the obvious one. I always thought it was quite a cheerful little carol, but on looking into it, the Holly represents Jesus’ thorny crown, the red berries the blood he shed and the Virgin Mary is represented by the Ivy. More recently Taylor Swift has released what is, in my opinion, a pretty depressing track entitled Ivy and of course there’s Poison Ivy, recorded by a multitude of artists over the years, but thankfully we don’t have that variety in the UK!

Apparently we’ve been using Holly to decorate our homes since mediaeval times – her prickles are supposed to ward off evil spirits. We love to poke bits of her behind pictures at Christmas and hang her on our front doors. You often hear people declaring with great confidence that it’s going to be a harsh winter because there are lots of berries on the Holly trees. Horticultural experts remind us that it’s the Spring weather that affects the supply of insects needed to pollinate the flowers, and the warmth of the sun in the Autumn helps the berries to ripen. Mind you, especially cold winters do often coincide with an abundance of berries, so I like to think there’s something in it.

Ivy creeps into my garden from the woods behind – I don’t encourage her because she can quickly invade space I want to use for other plants. However I feel there is plenty of room for her out in the woods, so I don’t feel at all guilty. People often say she harms the trees she climbs up, but in fact she doesn’t usually – she makes her own food and has her own root system. She provides a food source and shelter for birds, bees, butterflies, moths, bats and a multitude of insects including those pesky wasps, that actually do so much good – sorry but they’re not my favourite so they can stay out in the woods too! 

Bacchus, the god of wine, is often depicted sporting a garland of Ivy and Grapevines on his head. I’ve just discovered that this is said to prevent you from getting drunk – why didn’t I know this before?! (Note to self for next night out). Ivy is also a symbol of intellectual achievement – in Roman times winners of poetry competitions and athletics events were crowned with Ivy leaf garlands. On account of my aversion to strenuous exercise I won’t be expecting an award for my sporting prowess, but having now written a couple of sonnets, odes and haikus I reckon I might be in with a chance.

I think Mistletoe gets most musical mentions in golden oldies such as I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus, Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree, Ring Out, Solstice Bells (does anyone remember Jethro Tull?!), Cliff Richard’s Mistletoe and Whine (oh dear ….), Shaky’s Merry Christmas and Mariah’s chandelier shattering All I Want For Christmas Is You. The tradition continues with Justin B’s Mistletoe and Ed and Elton have just added themselves to the list – the lyrics of Merry Christmas also feature the custom of kissing under the Mistletoe. This is thought to have started among English servants in the late 18th century – a man was allowed to kiss a woman if she was standing underneath Mistletoe. On the face of it this sounds OK if she meant to be there – you’d like to think she wouldn’t be if there was anyone creepy in the vicinity. However the tradition takes on a bit of a sinister twist, in that it was said that bad luck would befall any woman who refused a kiss, which rather infers there may have been some duress involved. Mistletoe is associated with paganism – for them the white berries symbolised male fertility, with the seeds resembling semen – so that could be where the root of this custom lies – this is all becoming a bit disturbing – I’ll move on. 

Like Holly, Mistletoe is reputed to ward off evil and also to have medicinal powers such as prevention of epileptic fits. It does have a bad reputation though because it’s parasitic, but it’s only likely to weaken the host tree if it’s allowed to get out of hand. Victorian gardeners believed mistletoe seeds had to pass through a mistle thrush in order to germinate. It’s not as specific as that, but some birds love to eat the berries and naturally excrete the seeds, which stick to tree bark where they start to germinate. The journey through the bird will soften the seeds, much in the same way as before planting we soak seeds such as Sweet Peas and Morning Glory to encourage growth. I don’t think we could ever achieve anything the size of this sculpture my sister and I admire from a distance when we visit our local RHS garden at Christmas time – we think they should choose a sturdier branch to attach it to!

Tenbury Wells, which is officially the ‘Capital of English Mistletoe’, has an annual festival devoted to the plant during which a Mistletoe Queen and a Holly King are crowned. In my writing, I have attributed the female gender to Holly and Ivy, only because they are commonly used as girls’ names. In fact most Holly varieties, Ivy and Mistletoe are dioecious – while unpronounceable this simply means they’re either male or female and the female needs a male nearby in order to produce berries. In folklore Holly was regarded as male and Ivy as female. This gave rise to a belief that whichever plant was brought into a house first after Christmas Eve, would predict whether husband or wife would rule the roost for the year that followed – not that there’s any doubt about that in our household but I’ve set a diary reminder just in case Grumbling Rose is under any illusions.

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1 Comment

  1. I love how your blogs blend the personal with the informative. This blog is packed with detail – from Greek myth to folklore, classical to pop, and I love that birds secrete seeds that then fly through the air, stick to tree bark, and go on to propagate!


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