In the Wild ...

The Winter Solstice and Yuletide

By Mary T. Harrington

            Night has fallen over the world. Sunrise comes later and the day darkens earlier. The land, which was rich in life just a few short weeks ago, slumbers in a gray veil that is only lightened by snow not warmed.  Then there is a change and the daylight gradually begins to return. We know this event as the winter solstice. For many millennium, this day has been a cause for celebration and the origin of many of the enduring holidays throughout the world. The fascination regarding the long, dark night predates 3000 BCE where the prehistoric peoples of Europe built reliable and impressive indicators such as Stonehenge in England and Newgrange in Ireland.  As the Romans conquered much of Europe, these beliefs were adopted and modified culminating in the festival of Saturnalia who was a “Golden King” and represented peace and prosperity. It is believed by scholars that the early Christians being persecuted by the Romans moved the celebration of the birth of Christ to the winter solstice since it allowed them to gather in larger groups unnoticed. Christmas has continued to be celebrated during the solstice since this time.

Modern day Christmas has been strongly influenced by another solstice holiday of Norse/Germanic origin, Yule or the season of merrymaking and feasting. An enduring symbol considered sacred by those peoples and still used to this date is the Yule wreath. Then it was made of iron and decorated in evergreens with a candle placed in the center to represent the returning sun. The use Holly and Christmas trees also stems from these celebrations.

So what exactly is the Winter Solstice and why are the evergreens so important? The planet Earth is actually at an angle of 23o to the sun and as it rotates, the rays of the sun do not strike the Earth’s surface at the same angle. At the exact moment when the surface of the Earth is tilted furthest away at a perpendicular angle, is when the Winter Solstice occurs. The seasons occur as a result of the variation of light in relation to the sun on the Earth’s surface.  It is important to note that the reason why leaves turn color in the fall is not completely related to the coming of cold, but to the lessening of light so necessary to the production of chlorophyll, a food component that also helps the leaves appear green. The chlorophyll dying and the increasing darkness are a cue for dormancy for many deciduous plant and trees. This is not the case for the evergreens that developed a different strategy for survival by remaining green year round and therefore not competing for light (the equivalent of food) with other plants at least half the year. Many of the ancient’s celebrating the Winter Solstice felt that the evergreen plants and trees were sacred and revered since the other life around appeared dead.  These evergreens offered hope and the promise of better times. Two good examples stemming from these times and enduring today are Holly and mistletoe.  

  Holly- Ilex, sp.                                           

            There are many species of Holly throughout the world both evergreen and deciduous. Two species commonly found in this area are Winterberry, Ilex verticillata and the American Holly, Ilex opaca, which are identified as follows:

Winterberry is a deciduous (losing its leaves in fall) Holly shrub with bright showy red berries that develop in autumn and remain attached to the tree through winter. There are male and female trees within the species that flower in the leaf axils; with only the female developing berries and only if there is male winterberry in the vicinity. Winterberry can be found in swamps, damp thickets and pond margins.

American Holly is an evergreen tree with a narrow, rounded, and dense crown of spiny leaves, small white flowers and bright red berries. The bark is light gray and the fruits also mature in autumn remaining attached through winter. Like Winterberry, there are male and female trees with only the female developing fruit. American Holly is commonly found in moist or well-drained soil like flood plains and in mixed hardwood forests. This tree most closely resembles the European variety, sp. aquifolium and is used during the holiday season in the same fashion.

Holly has long been viewed as an herb of protection. Boughs of Holly or wreaths were placed over doorways to grant peace, protection and prosperity to the homes it adorned. This practice, which was adopted by Christians, dates back to the Druids. The common name of “Christ’s Thorne” was said to have come from the legend that Holly sprang up from the footsteps of Christ as he walked to His crucifixion, the thorny leaves representing His crown of thorns and the berries droplets of His blood.  The leaves of Holly were used medicinally to treat a variety of disorders including fevers, pleurisy and worms. The fruit although considered poisonous to humans is a food source for a variety of birds and mammals in this area including Black Duck, Mourning Dove, Turkey, Flicker, Blue Jay, Mockingbird, White-throated Sparrow, Towhee, White-footed Mouse, Squirrel, Fox, Raccoon, Skunk and Deer.

Mistletoe- Phoradendron leucarpum.           

            Mistletoe is an evergreen, semi-parasitic shrub with short, interrupted, axillary clusters of tiny yellow flowers on smooth, green jointed stems. The leaves are long, opposite, thick and leathery. The fruit is white, berry-like and small measuring less that ¼ inch in diameter. Mistletoe is found primarily on deciduous trees exposed to sun. The genus name derives form the Greek phor “a thief” and dendron “a tree” referring to this plant getting part of its nourishment from the trees on which it grows. The species found in the North America is not the European variety that would turn gold as it dried as one of the enduring common names “Golden Bough” suggests. The American species can be found as far north as New Jersey but it prefers warmer, southern climates.

Mistletoe was a sacred herb to the Druids and the Norse possessing magical qualities in the areas of healing, protection and dreams. It is the Norse symbolism that may be origin of the “kissing” tradition still evident today. The Norse believed that men who met in battle under the mistletoe would stop their fighting, forgive each other their differences and kiss to honor the peace now established between them. The Druids believed that mistletoe cut from the oak tree was a powerful talisman against evil and “ill will” when worn on the body. Twigs with berries were hung in doorways to indicated past grievances and hatreds were forgiven. Mistletoe was used medicinally to treat like convulsions, delirium and heart disorders. It was especially favored for epilepsy. Birds like Cedar Waxwing, Crow, Hermit Thrush, Robin and Bluebird favor the berries of Mistletoe. The berry is poisonous to humans and should be kept out of the reach of young children.

May this holiday season be filled with joy, peace and prosperity for you and all those you cherish.   

Mary T. Harrington

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