Bringing in the Green

Up until recent decades, ‘bringing in the green’ was one of the most widespread features of the Yuletide season. Evergreen plants were collected from gardens, woods and hedgerows and used to decorate hearths, make wreaths and bedeck houses and churches. Stow, in his Survey of London (1603), recorded that not only were houses and churches decorated with evergreens, but also the conduits, standards, and crosses in the streets. [1] These decorations were either taken down on Twelfth Night or as late as Candlemas. The custom is ancient – the Romans decorated their houses with evergreens during the Saturnalia and Kalends, and in spite of church condemnations they survived. In the sixth century the Bishop Martin of Braga forbade the adorning of houses with laurels and green trees.

For the old Pagans, the evergreen was a symbol of immortality as it had the power to survive the winter death that struck down all other forms of vegetation. Evergreens represent the continuation of life during the death time of winter. Particularly precious were plants like the holly, ivy and mistletoe which actually bear fruit in the wintertime. Decorating your home with evergreens is an act of magic far more significant than tacking up shiny plastic decorations.

The Romans used holly as a decoration during the Saturnalia winter festival and would send fresh holly boughs as a greeting to friends. In Germanic myth, the holly was associated with Frau Holle (Holde or Holda) the winter hag. The early Christians forbade the practice as a Pagan custom, but the association of holly and the winter solstice continued unabated, so the Church was forced to re-interpret it, identifying the holly with Christ, the white flower emblematic of his purity, the prickles his crown of thorns, and the red berries the drops of his shed blood. In the Middle Ages, Christian mythographers decided that St John the Baptist was born at the summer solstice at the time of the weakening Sun, announcing his own power would wane with the birth of Christ at the winter solstice, the time of the strengthening Sun, [2] associating Christ with the waxing year and John with the waning, represented by the holly and oak respectively. [3] [4] Many popular superstitions still linger round the use of holly at Christmas. Tradition says that no branch should be cut from a holly tree, but rather that it should be pulled free. Sterile holly (holly without berries) was unlucky in decorations.  In some western counties of England, the boughs removed from churches were treasured for luck throughout the year.       

Mistletoe is an evergreen, woody parasite growing on the branches of trees, mainly apple and pear, but occasionally on ash, hawthorn and oak trees. It was considered a potent magical plant because it did not grow on the earth, but on the branches of a tree in a ‘place between places’. It grows into a ball, imitating the Sun, and the leaves are fresh and green all year long, making it a plant symbolising immortality and life in the dead time. Because the evergreen mistletoe bears its fruit in winter, it is an emblem of fertility. The Roman historian Pliny wrote that the mistletoe was one of the most important magical plants of the Celts. He recorded that the druids called it ‘all healing’ and it served as a symbol for the winter solstice.  In Norse mythology the mistletoe was used to slay the sun god Balder and afterwards given into the keeping of Frigga, the goddess of love, and it was ordained that anyone who passed beneath the mistletoe should receive a kiss to show that it had become a symbol of peace and love. There was a tradition that that the maid who was not kissed under it, at Christmas, would not be married in that coming year. [5] With each kiss, a berry had to be plucked off with each kiss for luck.  [6] Though other evergreens were included in the decorations of churches, mistletoe was the one omission, being considered too Pagan. The exception was at York, where on Christmas Eve mistletoe was carried to the high altar of the cathedral and a general pardon and season of peace was proclaimed. In the coven, we each keep a single piece of Yuletide mistletoe throughout the year, as a symbol of hospitality, and to burn as part of next year’s Yule ritual to signify the ending of another cycle.

Ivy is an evergreen plant which begins to grow on the ground, but which then climbs the nearest tree in a spiral fashion. This associates the plant with the Sun, since the path of the Sun during the year is a spiral one, as depicted as such on monuments such as Newgrange. Any plant with a spiral growth pattern was thus considered a plant of immortality sacred to death and resurrection gods such as Dionysus and Osiris. As a symbol of rebirth, ivy it was carried in a basket representing Bacchus. In Christian allegory it symbolised the eternal life and the resurrection of Christ. Church ivy saved from Christmas was fed to ewes to induce the conception of spring lambs. An ivy leaf placed in water on New Year’s Eve that was still be fresh on Twelfth Night meant that the year ahead would be favourable.

The Christmas evergreens had a sacred nature, as evidenced by their careful hanging and disposal. In Shropshire people never threw them away for fear of misfortune, but either burnt them or gave them to the cows; it was very unlucky to let a piece fall to the ground. The Shropshire custom was to leave the holly and ivy up until Candlemas, while the mistletoe-bough was carefully preserved until the time came for a new one next Yule.

© Anna Franklin, The Hearth Witch’s Year, Llewellyn, 2021

Photo Alex Borland

[1] Thomas K. Hervey, The Book of Christmas, The Folklore Society, 1888

[2] Phillipe Walter, Christianity, the Origins of a Pagan Religion, Inner Traditions, Rochester, 2003

[3] In a reversal of the usual borrowings from Pagan to Christian, many modern Pagans have adopted this as the oak and holly king theme, but switch the roles around, so that the holly king gives up his power to the oak king at Yule, and regains it at the summer solstice.

[4] John Williamson, The Oak King, The Holly King and the Unicorn, Harper and Row, New York, 1866

[5] Thomas K. Hervey, The Book of Christmas, The Folklore Society, 1888

[6] Clement A. Miles, Christmas in Ritual and Tradition, Christian and Pagan, T. Fisher Unwin, 1912


Author: annafranklinblog

Anna Franklin is the High Priestess of the Hearth of Arianrhod, which runs teaching circles, a working coven, and the annual Mercian Gathering, a Pagan camp which raises money for charity. She regularly speaks at conferences, moots and workshops around the country. She is the author of many books on witchcraft and Paganism, including the popular Pagan Ways Tarot, Sacred Circle Tarot, The Fairy Ring, Herb Craft, Magical Incenses and Oils, Personal Power, A Romantic Guide to Handfasting, Familiars, The Oracle of the Goddess, Hearth Witch, The Path of the Shaman and The Hearth Witch’s Compendium. Anna’s books have been translated into nine languages.

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