Pat Blythe – Farewell to 2020…….the flora and fauna of Christmas…..and music

This is my final column of 2020, a year we’d all much rather forget but will be permanently etched in our psyches forever. So on that note, I’ve decided to end on a more upbeat, festive but somewhat educational note.

2020, for all its disappointments, frustrations, fears (I could go on), has whizzed by at warp speed. One would think it the days would have passed at a snail’s pace but noooooo…..spin twice and it’s December, and here comes Christmas. Are we ready? Nope….not even close. I am a (not so lean), mean, baking machine. The knitting needles have also arisen from the depths of the basement and they been put to work after a seven-year hiatus. It’s been a year of reflection, drastic change and a different type of “busyness”. I’m remaining optimistic and looking ahead to better things. There is a glimmering light at the end of this tunnel.

The “natural” history of Christmas

I started this column writing about Christmas traditions around the world. Somehow it morphed into what has, and still does, represent Christmas to all of us…..the fruits and plants of the forest that have become lasting symbols of the season. That both the plants and their significance have survived so long speaks to their tenacity for living, and their strength of meaning to so many. The beauty Mother Earth offers us year after year is really nothing short of miraculous. Every piece of greenery we connect with Christmas has a history. Whether they are associated with pagan ceremonies, Roman celebrations or assumed by Christianity; in one form or another our beloved holly, mistletoe, ivy, Christmas trees et al are all based on the religion of belief, faith and mystery. We begin with the classic three……

Holly, ivy and mistletoe are “winter green” plants and are linked to the rebirth of both spring and Christ. Holly and ivy in particular are inexorably intertwined through song. The tie between these two plants goes back to the idea of holly (male) and ivy (female) being burned together at the pagan festival of Beltane. Both plants are important for the survival of woodland creatures, providing food throughout the winter months.

The Holly and the Ivy – Kings College Cambridge

Holly was once considered the sacred plant of Saturn, the god of agriculture. Romans would send boughs of holly to friends (much like we send flowers today) to denote the Saturnalia Festival, a time of celebration and anticipation for the growth of crops as winter segued into spring. As the Romans adopted Christianity, holly followed in lockstep and became a powerful symbol of Christmas.

Green Man wearing holly

Northern Europe is the natural home of the holly plant. Once believed to possess magical qualities by the Druids, they would wear a crown of holly to ward off evil spirits. To others the holly leaves represent hope, and the red berries represent potency. Today, for Christians around the world, the holly crown represents the thorns on Christ’s crown, the berries drops of blood.

Other stories claim the cross Jesus was crucified on was built of holly. Another maintains that holly grew where Jesus trod. Even today, holly is still considered the sacred plant of Winter Solstice, representing hope. Ivy, like mistletoe, is also connected to Christmas and romance. It also associated with death, melancholy and rebirth. Ivy requires something to support itself as it grows. To Christians it is a reminder we need to cling to God for support in our lives.

Mistletoe, a partially parasitic plant, grows in tree canopies, has no roots or links to earth and remains green all year round, even while its host tree slumbers through winter. Easy to understand why mistletoe was thought to have magical properties.  Mistletoe’s use goes back to the ancient times of the Druids. Also thought to ward off evil spirits and bring good luck, in Norse mythology it was also a sign of love and friendship. Mistletoe is the combination of two Anglo Saxon words, ‘mistel’ which means dung, and ‘tan’, which means twig or stick. So the literal translation would be what you have is “poo on a stick”! Where’s the romance in that?!

Mistletoe

Mistletoe is also known as the fertility plant. The tradition of “kissing under the mistletoe” began in ancient Greece, again during the festival of Saturnalia, later becoming part of marriage ceremonies. It also represented peace to the Romans at war, reconciling differences with their enemies under the mistletoe. One of the first illustrations of “kissing under the mistletoe” was in the initial book version of A Christmas Carol in 1834. Christians tried to ban the use of mistletoe as decoration, particularly in the churches. York Minster Church once held a Mistletoe Service in the winter where wrong doers or sinners in the City of York could come and be pardoned.

I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus – The Ronettes

Laurel

Laurel, worn on the head as a wreath or crown, has symbolised success and victory since Roman times. “Early Christians adopted the laurel leaf altering the meaning slightly to mean the triumph of man through the birth of Christ, the Savior. Both ivy and laurel leaves continue to be used in Christmas decorations, especially wreaths and garlands.” Laurel is also a symbol of the victory of God over the devil.

Laurel wreath

Ahhhh…the yew and fir of the Christmas tree

The yew tree was sacred to the Druids. The drooping branches of old yew trees can root when they touch the ground and form new trunks, a sign of both longevity and regeneration. The yew’s needles are highly toxic, as noted in Shakespeare’s play Macbeth when the character concocts a poisonous brew containing “slips of yew, silvered in the moon’s eclipse.” So from the Druids to the 16th century, the yew came to symbolise death and resurrection and this continued into the Christian era.

The origin of the Christmas tree is indeed Germanic, going back to 1419 when a local guild in Freiburg put up a tree and decorated it with apples, tinsel, wafers and gingerbread. In “Paradise Plays”, performed to celebrate the feast day of Adam and Eve on Christmas Eve, the tree of knowledge was represented by an evergreen fir with apples tied to its branches. The oldest Christmas tree market…..Strasbourg in Alsace (originally part of the Rhineland). Unadorned trees, now as Weihnachtsbaum (German for Christmas tree) were sold during the 17th century.

Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, Queen Consort to George III of England

Although the introduction of the Christmas tree to England is attributed to Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria, it is actually Queen Charlotte, wife of George III (known as Mad King George) who installed and decorated the first yew tree at Windsor Castle in 1800. A tradition she brought with her from Germany, it was intended as a “charming spectacle” and was decorated with sweatmeets¹, almonds and raisins in papers, fruit and toys. It soon became all the rage among the English aristocracy.

A Victorian Christmas tree

Forty years later, Prince Albert imported a number of spruce firs from his native Germany and had them installed at Windsor Castle and decorated for Christmas. The tradition spread and has stuck ever since. Although pines and firs are top picks for Christmas trees, the yew tree and Scots pine are the only varieties indigenous to Britain.

Rosemary

Rosemary was another plant thought to protect you from evil spirits. It was also connected with the Virgin Mary, as it was thought to be Mary’s favourite plant. Used as a garnish on the boar’s head (for the rich only) in the Middle Ages, it was, at times, called the “friendship” plant. A symbol of fidelity, rosemary is also known as the “remembrance herb” and is used at Christmas to remind us of the birth of Jesus. In the 21st century, studies have shown rosemary can actually boost or enhance our memory.

Rosemary trees

Resembling a small Christmas tree (and a member of the pine family) the use and association of rosemary at Christmas dates back to at least the 14th century. Sir Thomas More, the English statesman and writer (1478-1535) wrote, “As for Rosmarine, I let it runne all over my garden walls, not onlie because my bees love it, but because it is the herb sacred to remembrance, and, therefore, to friendship.”

The wreath

The word “wreath” comes from the Old English “writhan” which means “to twist”. The wreath actually dates back to the Persian Empire, ancient Egypt and ancient Greece although the purpose of the wreath varies. Throughout time the wreath has been a symbol of power, authority and honour (see laurel above). Wreaths hung on doors were a sign of victory.

Traditional Christmas wreath

Typically made of fresh greenery and seasonal berries and flowers, the wreath has a long and varied history. It is connected with the pagan holiday of Yule marking the winter solstice; the 12-day festival (also called midwinter) honoured the return of the sun and the seasonal cycle. Wreaths were meant to symbolize nature and the promise of spring. Rome’s midwinter celebration (December 17-23) was called Saturnalia, worshipping Saturn, the god of agriculture. In ancient times, the wreath represented the completion of another year. Muslims often hang a wreath on their doors during a three-day celebration called Eid al-Fitr, the end of fasting at the close of Ramadan.

Ramadan wreath

Of course the most popular use of the wreath is its connection with Christmas and Christianity. Adopted by Christians in the 16th century, the circular shape symbolises eternal life and the “unending love of God.” They were typically made of evergreens, holly oak and red berries.

Advent wreath

The four candles in the Advent wreath represent the four weeks of Advent leading up to Christmas day. The colour purple (or violet) is a liturgical colour and signifies a time of prayer, penance and sacrifice. Pink symbolizes joy, and the white candle, signifying purity, is called the “Christ Candle”. It represents the life of Christ and is always lit on Christmas Eve. All five candles symbolize the “coming light of Christ”.

The Christmas wreaths of today are usually more ornamental and are found hanging in homes or on front doors throughout the Christmas season. Most people aren’t aware of the wreath’s history and are purely a festive decoration. Today’s wreaths are created out of almost any material you can think of, from plastic bags to metal. They can be adorned with ribbons, flowers, birds, lights…..just about anything “Christmassy” you can think of, or simply nothing at all.

The Yule log and Yuletide

An ancient Scandinavian tradition, they burned a huge log, felled from an ash tree, to honour their god Thor. Celts carried on the tradition using a specially selected oak tree. A hearth fire was kept burning to prevent spirits from entering the home. The tree was literally brought into the home and placed, trunk first, into the hearth. Any leftovers were kept for the following year.

The term Yuletide is synonymous with Christmas. According to the dictionary, the word “Yule” is derived from an old English noun “geōl”, a cousin of the Old Norse world “jōl”. The word “tide” refers to a “season”. Yule is what the Scandinavians’ called the Winter Solstice. The Yule log was burned during the 12 days of Christmas, carefully lit from the remains from the previous year’s log.

The tradition of the Yule log has spread worldwide. In Cornwall the log is called the “mock”; in The Netherlands the log had to be stored under a bed prior to lighting it; in some parts of Ireland large candles are used instead of a log and are lit only on New Year’s Eve and Twelfth Night; in France it’s a family affair with everyone involved in the selection and felling of the tree.

What we imagine when we think of Christmas in an English village

Christmas past……

Every year there are new Christmas songs and more retakes on the old ones. Christmas music evokes strong emotion in many of us. Memories flood the mind of Christmas’s past…..of our own childhoods and that of children’s; of family gatherings and Christmas dinners; of caroling and twinkling lights shining through the snow; of early mornings and the rush to see what Santa crammed in that stocking; watching our own little ones, the joy on their faces as they put their tiny hands inside to discover what treats the man in the big red suit has left them….. For many of us, these memories are countless and precious treasures we hold in our mind’s eye and hearts forever. We are the lucky ones.

I Believe in Father Christmas – Greg Lake & Ian Anderson

I Believe in Father Christmas – Greg Lake (original version)

Good King Wenceslas – Loreena McKennitt

So this is Christmas – John Lennon

Do They Know It’s Christmas – Band Aid

White Christmas – Bing Crosby & Frank Sinatra

Another Christmas Song – Jethro Tull

Thank God It’s Christmas – Queen

Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow! – Dean Martin

Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree – Brenda Lee

Christmas Song – Jethro Tull

A Spaceman Came Travelling – Chris de Burgh

The Little Drummer Boy – David Bowie & Bing Crosby

This is definitely not a traditional Christmas song but it’s accompanied by wonderfully warm and heartfelt little claymation “cartoon”.  Why do these always bring tears to my eyes?!

Underneath the Mistletoe -Sia

The Holly and The Ivy – Mannheim Steamroller

Angels We Have Heard on High

Mary Did You Know – Pentatonix

….and if you get this far, my favourite Christmas show and soundtrack. It’s been my Christmas tradition for years. I can listen to the soundtrack repeatedly.

A Charlie Brown Christmas (complete soundtrack) – Vince Guaraldi Trio

Thank you all for taking time out of your busy schedules to read what my fingers churn out. Sometimes they really do have a mind of their own. I want to wish everyone a safe, happy and healthy Christmas season. For those of you fortunate enough to celebrate with friends and/or family, take a moment to reach out to those who are on their own. Your gift of time and connection is critical and can make someone’s Christmas that much brighter.

¹Sweetmeats are a sweet delicacy, prepared with sugar, honey, or the like, as preserves, candy, or, formerly, cakes or pastry. They can be a sweet delicacy of the confectionery or candy kind, as candied fruit, sugar-covered nuts, sugarplums, bonbons, or balls or sticks of candy.

=PB=

Pat’s column appears every Wednesday.

Contact us at: dbawis@rogers.com

dbawis-button7“Music and photography….my heart, my passions.” After an extended absence —  33 years as a consultant and design specialist in the telecommunications industry — Pat has turned her focus back to the music scene. Immersing herself in the local club circuit, attending the many diverse music festivals, listening to some great music, photographing and writing once again, she is eager to spread the word about this great Music City of ours…..Toronto. Together for 34 years, Pat little-red-headed-dancing-girlalso worked alongside her late husband Christopher Blythe, The PictureTaker©, who, beginning in the early 70s, photographed much of the local talent (think Goddo, Frank Soda and the Imps, BB Gabor, the first Police Picnic, Buzzsaw, Hellfield, Shooter, The Segarini Band….) as well as national and international acts. Pat is currently making her way through 40 years of Chris’s archives, 20 of which are a photographic history of the local GTA music scene beginning in 1974. It continues to be a work in progress. Oh…..and she LOVES to dance! 

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