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Village Nature Diary with Mary Green

The Holly and the Ivy

Posted on November 20 2008 at 11:20:43 0 comments

Ivy leaves and flowers

Mary Green looks forward to the festive feel of greenery gathered into the home.

October ranged from a warm “St Luke’s summer” to snow near the end – the first October lying snow in southern England since the 1930s apparently. Some trees turned colour very suddenly, having stayed green quite late, and they made an exceptional show this year.

During November the leaves were still stunning, especially maples – even sycamores – and oaks. Apparently global warming keeps the trees greener longer in two ways: firstly because of the temperatures and lack of frost, and secondly because rising levels of carbon dioxide keeps leaves greener longer.

A wet summer may also lead to better colour, as this year. In a wet summer there are more leaves – it was noticeable this year – and the more leaves, the more sugars. Sugars are what show as colour when the tree takes back the chlorophyll which made the leaves green.

None of this concerns the evergreen holly and ivy, not to mention the parasitic mistletoe of course! Christmas is our foremost festival, celebrated by Christians and non-Christians alike. It has the strongest associations with the natural world, despite, or maybe because of, coming in the middle of winter.

There have always been celebrations of life and rebirth in midwinter, and we all mark the turning of the year with fire and food and song, and green plants.

The old carol The Holly and the Ivy says, “Of all the trees that are in the wood/The holly bears the crown.” The holly is known as the king of the trees, which is strange for a smallish tree, given the competition of that other king of the woods, the oak.

In Celtic legend, the holly dominated the second half of the year, and the oak the first. Holly is a determinedly male symbol, associated with life and fire, and is brought into houses all over the country for Christmas.

It has become a symbol of Christ, the red berry symbolising his blood, though its origins as a powerful fiery tree are pre-Christian. It is considered bad luck to cut a holly tree down, but good luck to cut branches to bring into the house.

Holly is very much a Midland tree. There are well-known “hollins” in Shropshire and Worcestershire, and many holly-linked place names.

Actually it is the female tree that bears the berries, so if you have a bush without berries it will be a male. The leaves near the bottom of the tree are prickliest, to resist browsing by animals, and those at the top often soft and prickle-free. New leaves growing after the tree has been cut back are also beautifully soft and glossy.

Holly is one of our few native evergreens, even rarer as an evergreen broadleaf, which partly accounts for it as a symbol of life. It was used much in former times as animal feed in the depths of winter. The individual leaves are not really “ever” green, but they fall and get replaced gradually rather than all falling in autumn. Leaves stay on the tree for up to five years.

The tree was also much planted as a marker tree. It marked field boundaries and estate limits, and protected individual houses from evil. Its boughs were always disposed of very carefully after Christmas, being burnt ceremonially at twelfth night or even as late as Candlemas Eve.

The ivy, on the other hand, was proverbially a female plant. Its habit of twining growth combined with great tenacity contributes to this image. In many of the old myths the holly and the ivy grow together intertwined like man and woman.

Ivy is a great winter plant. Its flowers last into the winter and its black berries into the spring. It is the haunt of late butterflies and then of hungry birds when there are few other flowers or berries about. The leaves are individually very beautiful and varied, though the ivy’s habit of strangling other trees makes it unpopular with gardeners.

One wonderful link between the holly and ivy comes from a butterfly. The Holly Blue, as its name suggests, emerges in May when the holly is in flower and can be seen in flocks feeding off the nectar. It then has a second hatching in the autumn, and feeds on the flowers of ivy. I have seen both this year.

The holly is the king, though. Its red berries carry symbolism of fire and blood, and in mythology it wins in the fight against the dark funereal ivy. However, in real life, ivy can strangle a holly!

Mistletoe is the other plant we can’t escape in December. The headquarters of Christmas mistletoe are in Tenbury Wells, not far away, and the heartlands of its growth are in the far west Midlands down through Gloucestershire and Somerset.

It is a parasitic plant, growing on a wide range of trees but especially apple. In tradition it is associated with the oak, but in fact is rarely seen there. It likes hawthorn, lime and poplar as well as apple and pear orchards. I know of some wonderful bunches on ancient apple trees not far away, though sadly feel I can’t reveal where.

Because it appeared as if by magic and seemed to live off nothing, it was always a sacred plant. One myth says it was born when lightning struck the host tree. Its pagan heritage was at one time strong enough to prevent it being brought into churches, and unusually it didn’t acquire Christian symbolism.

Many of the mistletoe legends are about fertility: women carried a twig to help them conceive. This may account for our modern habit of kissing under it. It had traditions attached to how it could be harvested, and it was bad luck to let it fall to the ground.

Often, when the Christmas decorations are taken down, a sprig of mistletoe is left up all year and then burnt when the next year’s go up, including in my house! It is hung at the entrance of houses and rooms to bring good luck.

None of these berries are edible for us, though all three plants have been used in folk medicine. Another poisonous berry, the yew, is very prolific this year, red and waxy against the dark foliage. Yews grow in many churchyards and have associations with graves and grief. 

Strangely, two familiar birds are associated with Christmas in a similar relationship to the holly and ivy. One is still prominent: one has almost disappeared from traditions. They are the robin and the wren.

The robin with its red breast is the king of Christmas, the small brown wren the defeated party. In some parts of the country, and for longer in the far west, Ireland and the Isle of Man, there were old traditions involving the killing of a wren on Boxing Day (St Stephen’s Day). In more recent times the killing was symbolic: originally it was real.

The “wren” was paraded round the streets accompanied by a song, which survives in the folk repertoire as “The Cutty Wren.”

Just as in the holly and ivy battle, the robin’s victory over the wren is seen as the victory of light and life over darkness and death. The bright robin on our Christmas cards is not just a cliché, but something very old and basic.

The real robin is a very common bird that seems to welcome human company. It sings all winter when other birds are quiet. It is very competitive and aggressive in defending its territory. Despite its masculine image, it is the female birds that take the dominant role in courtship.

Carol singers and mummers who visited at Christmas would be traditionally given a “wassail” to drink. Wassail means good health, and the drink was usually mulled ale or cider with apples and spices. Apples keep into winter, the last of the fruits.

The other Christmas feasts, especially Christmas pudding, dates, figs and oranges, represent the way local fruits have been replaced by expensive and prized imports.

The Christmas tree, a non-native spruce, is a relatively modern tradition introduced by Queen Victoria, but before this boughs of native pine, yew and other evergreens were used to decorate houses. 

Even the ancient fire festival – the pagan celebration of Yule – survives in the traditional yule log burnt at Christmas, and the chimney descent of Santa Claus (Saint Nicholas). Before we adopted the North European/American Santa, we had our own Father Christmas.

He appears in old mummers’ plays as a jolly, red-faced figure, wearing a wreath of green leaves, and encouraging wassailing and feasting. The traditional mummers’ plays also involve death and rebirth, another variant on the theme of light and life overcoming dark and death.

Christmas/Yule traditions continue into the new year. On Twelfth Night (January 6) there was a festival of misrule, during which boys became bishops and masters waited on servants. On this night in more recent times, evergreens and other decorations are taken down and burnt. New year includes the ceremony of first footing, when bread and coal are brought to the house to symbolise fire and food for the coming year.

I would like to wish merry Christmas and a happy new year to everyone who has been reading my column this past year. I have thoroughly enjoyed writing it. Next year I hope to bring you some more nature notes, this time looking each month in more depth at one aspect of local wildlife.

The poems every month are by me or one of the other members of the Withybed Green poets group, which is still going strong and welcomes new members! You can contact me via The Village if interested.

Red at Christmas
by Megan Brain

Red apple cheeks wrapped in red woollen scarves
Excitable shrieks and muffled laughs
Ruby red wine mulled and spiced
Brandy rich fruitcake frosted and iced
Red embers in the hearth are glowing
Outside it’s bitter cold and snowing
Cherry red lips shivering with cold
Red shiny fingers, snowballs struggling to hold
Red holly berries on branches that bend
From red breasted robin our winter’s friend
Red faced little children clambering to bed
Eagerly waiting for the man dressed in red

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