As Christmas decorations go up, we see these 'survivors' everywhere: holly, ivy, and mistletoe, the well-known plants of this season. But why are they so important and visible at Christmas? The answer is in their colour: they are evergreen plants, which stay alive, and even keep bearing fruit, during the freezing winter months that kill so many other plants. And so for centuries they have symbolised new life and hope, as the great survivors of nature.
The ancient Romans believed that holly was the plant of Saturn, their god of agriculture and harvest. He was worshipped in the winter festival of Saturnalia that was one of the forerunners of Christmas; holly would have been used as a decoration during this ancient festival. The peoples of pre-Christian Europe put holly boughs above the doorways of homes, to keep out evil: they were sure that the plant had magical powers, because it survived the winter weather, so they hoped it would help them to survive it as well.
This belief in the power of holly helped to make it important in Christian tradition: one of the oldest Christmas carols in English, 'The Holly and the Ivy', tells us that "of all the trees that are in the wood / The holly bears the crown." There is a legend that holly sprang out of the earth trodden on by Christ, and certainly the red berries it bears despite the winter cold are seen as symbols of the blood Jesus shed at the Crucifixion, while the combination of those berries and the sharp spikes on the holly leaves also symbolise the Crown of Thorns forced onto Jesus's head. In Scandinavian countries, holly is called 'the Christ Thorn'.
In pagan times, holly was thought to be a male plant and ivy a female plant; Christian belief connected the heart-shaped ivy leaves with Christ coming to earth from heaven. In Germany, it was traditional to attach a piece of ivy to the outside of a church, to protect it from lightning, but there was no custom of putting up ivy inside a house.
The white berries of mistletoe symbolise male fertility, and it was used by the ancient Celts in Europe as a cure for infertility and poison. They used mistletoe, as they did holly, to keep evil spirits away. Druid priests considered mistletoe sacred because it stayed green during the winter months, even though it had no roots. They used it in winter celebrations, performing their religious ceremonies under sprigs of mistletoe because they were convinced that it had magical healing powers.
The ancient Romans believed that enemies who met under mistletoe would put down their weapons and embrace each other, and the Scandinavian people further connected mistletoe with the Norse goddess of love. These beliefs have shaped the custom of kissing under a bunch or sprig of mistletoe at Christmas, to be certain of happiness and good luck in the New Year. Traditionally, mistletoe is the last Christmas greenery to be taken down - at Candlemas, or the feastday of the Presentation of the Child Jesus in the Temple, on 2 February. From the moment it is cut to the day of its removal, it must not touch the ground, to ward off bad luck.
The greenery of Christmas, present all around us at this time of year, reminds us of the hope of this season in Christianity, but also of a faith in rebirth and resurrection held by so many people throughout history.