For a few days around the time of the winter solstice the sun appears to stand still in the sky in that its elevation at noon does not seem to change. The winter solstice date is normally considered to be the 21st of December in the northern hemisphere, however at the winter solstice the position of the sun remains the same for three days. It is a turning point - the day that marks the return of the sun.
Many cultures the world over perform solstice ceremonies. At their root, an ancient fear that the failing light would never return unless humans intervened with ritual and ceremony.
Yule is the day of the winter solstice, the one of the longest night. This solar festival falls close to Christmas and is a time when our houses are adorned with many decorative plants that find their roots in many ancient traditions.
Holly berries, cloaked in sharp green leaves, are brightest in winter. The Celts of the British Isles and Gaul believed the Holly King ruled over winter and death.
In Scandinavian mythology, the holly belonged to Thor & Freya. The plant’s association with Thor's lightning meant that it could protect people from being struck by his bolts.
Norsemen and Celts would plant a holly tree near their homes to ward off lightning strikes. The crooked lines of the holly leaves most likely gave rise to its association with lightning, as well as the fact that holly conducts lightning into the ground better than most trees.
The use of ivy as a decoration dates back to Roman times, when it became associated with Bacchus - the god of revelry. It symbolized prosperity and charity, and so for early Christians was used during Christmas - a time to celebrate good times and to provide for the less fortunate.
The Christmas carol, "The Holly and the Ivy" has its roots in an English tradition from the Middle Ages. The soft ivy was twined around the more prickly holly in arrangements. Not only was this for aesthetic purposes, but the holly symbolized males and the ivy females. Their combination representing a good-natured rivalry between the two.
A botanical curiosity, mistletoe is the only complete plant that is a true parasite, often killing the hardwood tree it infests. For this reason, it was credited with magical properties by ancient societies and held sacred.
The Druids made great use of the plant in celebrations. In a ceremony held five days past the New Moon following the winter solstice, Druid priests would climb an oak tree and cut down the mistletoe. Crowds below would catch it in outstretched robes, as even a single sprig hitting the ground would bring bad luck. Catching it, on the other hand, was believed to bring fertility for animals.
In ancient Scandinavia, mistletoe was believed to symbolize peace. If enemies happened to meet under trees with mistletoe, they would disarm and call a truce for the day.
Many believe the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe is an English custom, which dictates that after each kiss, one white berry must be plucked from the bunch and discarded. When the berries are all gone, the kissing must stop. Needless to say, bunches with many berries were highly sought!
Happy Winter Solstice blessings to you all.