MANY of the customs that we now take for granted have pagan undertones. Holly and ivy, plants that hold onto their leaves and have berries, were revered as magical ‘life symbols’.
The Romans brought these evergreens into homes at the winter solstice as part of the feast of Saturnalia, and to encourage the return of the sun and its life-giving warmth.
Then, as Christianity became established, these customs were absorbed into Christmas celebrations cunning ploy to piggyback on pagan traditions and claim them for the new Christian festival.
Mistletoe most intriguing of our festive greenery. This common semiparasite of willow, poplar and apple trees has no roots, relying instead on its host plant for nutrients.
Its fleshy, antler-like leaves and creamy-white berries (only on the female plants) were venerated by the Druids who saw it as a powerful symbol of fertility, offering peace, luck and protection against disease.
The word mistletoe comes from two Anglo Saxon words: ‘mistel’ or dung and ‘tan’ or stick, which accurately describes one of the ways in which mistletoe is planted into a tree. Birds that have eaten mistletoe berries then pass out the seeds in their droppings onto twigs and branches where they grow.
Many Christmas cards feature the cheerful robin, which is probably the only bird signing loudly in your garden this month.
This popular bird found its way onto Victorian Christmas cards when it was known simply as the redbreast. At that time, postmen were nicknamed ‘robin redbreast’ because of their red tunics. Card illustrators then depicted the posties as robin redbreast birds, and the bird’s name gradually changed to robin.
The Berks, Bucks and Oxon Wildlife Trust has created a special wildlife version of the Twelve Days of Christmas, featuring plants, insects and animals and the nature reserves where you’ll see them.
Visit www.bbowt.org.uk to go wild this Christmas and New Year.