I’ve always loved winter the most. It might be because I’m a December baby, or because I love snow, ice and winter wildlife – there’s just something special about the dark half of the year. After a summer slump, my motivation begins to grind again in autumn and by winter I’m raring to go.
Today is the winter solstice, which marks the longest night of the year. From now on the days will start to lengthen. I know a lot of people struggle with these short, darker days, but with the winter solstice come exciting prospects for the new year and a clean slate to begin again. For me this is a time of possibility. There may be darkness now but the light is slowly returning.
I’m interested in the pre-Christian traditions surrounding the winter solstice, or Yule. Many of these old traditions are still familiar to us today, in particular those associated with wild plants.
One of several protective evergreens, holly has been a significant part of Yule tradition for thousands of years. The Druids regarded it as the sacred king of winter – while other plants withered during the cold months, holly continued to flourish. As a result, the prickly plant became a symbol of renewal and rejuvenation, maintaining high spirits through winter. Many ancient Europeans brought holly into the home as protection – its spikes were said to repel unwanted spirits and bring good luck.
The Druids considered ivy to be the queen to holly’s king. Also an evergreen that endures challenging environments and keeps its colour all year, ivy is symbolic of endurance and promise. Thought to possess magical qualities, it was hung in the home to bring luck in the spring. Ivy is especially significant because it grows in a spiral, reflecting the Wheel of the Year.
This plant is typically hung from the ceiling and its magical properties come from the belief that it exists between two worlds: sky and earth. It is cut carefully to ensure that it doesn’t touch the ground. Mistletoe has long been regarded as a symbol of freedom. Ancient Europeans believed it was a sign of peace, and any time warring Celtics found it in the forests, they would honour the plant and drop their weapons. Today, mistletoe is less of a white flag of surrender, but we still honour it with compassion by sharing a kiss!
Evergreens such as fir and spruce were seen as signs of eternal prosperity. They were symbols of optimism and freshness even in unforgiving environments. By bringing their branches – and more recently, the whole trees – inside during Yule, it was believed that evergreens could enliven and invigorate the home in preparation for the coming year.