Monday, April 6

Nature’s contributions to Christmas


Holly twigs bearing red berries are seen on a holly bush.

WHILST Christmas-tide is a joyful occasion for celebrating Christ’s birth and giving and receiving presents, it is also a time of reflection of years gone by, when family members were once with us and have since passed away. Memories, however, will always remain. Children should ask their grandparents and parents how they celebrated Christmas in yesteryears. Much will be revealed about life before the glitz and glitter of today’s shimmering lights!

Many of the traditions I inherited as a child, living in times of austerity in post-war Britain, I have carried on with my children and grandchildren. Today, as a young at heart septuagenarian, I shall continue to walk in the countryside a few days before Christmas much the same as I did as a boy, snipping off twigs of wild holly, ivy, and mistletoe in order to decorate my house. I hasten to add that I am not at all like the miser Scrooge in Charles Dickens’s famous novel ‘A Christmas Carol’.

Such traditions are no doubt embedded in the depth of midwinter in Europe when, three days before Christmas Day, at the Winter Solstice, there are but six to eight hours of daylight yet life still goes on complemented by thriving plants. As a child, we could not afford a spruce tree to decorate and instead we cut a holly bush from the hedges of nearby farmers’ fields. Sprigs of red berried and glossy leaved holly will always hang from my wall pictures together with trailing ivy vines. Over the entrance porch will hang a bunch of mistletoe.

A few years ago, I could readily shin up trees to cut down mistletoe and whilst now my spirit is willing, my flesh is a bit weak, so now I buy a small bunch from a local stall trader. What, you may well ask, is the significance of these three plants at Christmas-time?


European Holly (Ilex aquifolium)

The Ilex species is widely spread throughout temperate and subtropical regions and, interestingly, the greatest diversity of its species is found in Southeast Asia. The Romans referred to this tree as ‘Ilex acrifolium’, which is a better description for it literally means ‘sharp leaved’.

The seven-metre tall evergreen holly tree in my garden has very small whitish flowers, which later bear red berries. These so-called berries are known as ‘drupes’ – fleshy fruits with stones, not unlike an olive. Earlier this month, holly bushes were ‘hanking’ in red berries and folklore implies that a severe winter lies ahead. We will see!

With sharp spikey leaves, in some varieties, holly is sometimes referred to as ‘Christ’s thorn’ and regarded as symbolic of Christianity. The sharpness of the leaves suggesting the crown of thorns that Jesus wore at his crucifixion, the red berries his blood, and the flame shape of the leaves implying God’s burning love for all people. Well before Christianity arrived in Europe, the Celtic pagan druids with their animistic beliefs viewed holly as plant offering protection against evil spirits.


Ivy is seen smothering a stag oak tree in a Somerset field.

Ivy (Hedera) – the creeper

This fast growing, climbing evergreen plant I frequently uproot from my garden trees and the garden walls. The ivy plant’s tendrils or aerial roots certainly penetrate and loosen mortar in slate, brick, or stone walls. Whilst native to Eurasia and North Africa, it has been introduced to Australia and North America.

Its flowers have greenish-yellow petals, which are rich in nectar thus attracting the Ivy bee. Its black berries, appearing in late winter and early spring are voraciously devoured by thrushes and woodpigeons when other food sources are in short supply.

This plant is steeped in folklore. In many parts of the UK it is known as ‘bindwood’ or ‘lovestone’ for the way it clings to and grows over stone walls. Traditionally it was thought to hold spiritual and symbolic properties and was brought to houses to ‘repel’ evil spirits. In the early Greek Olympic Games, the victor’s head was adorned with a wreath of this plant. In Ancient Rome, Bacchus, the god of inebriates, was portrayed with a head garland of ivy.

Close up of ivy creeping up a stag oak tree.

In Christianity, its tendency to cling to dead trees and still remain green is viewed as the eternal life in soil, long after bodily death has occurred. Stag oaks with their dead antler shaped branches attract ivy growth in my neck of the woods in Somerset, UK. The traditional Christmas carol ‘The Holly and the Ivy’, first documented in the early 19th century, portrays the holly as the blood of Christ and the ivy as the pure form of the Virgin Mary. With over 1,000 species of this plant worldwide, I am sure other connotations of this plant are in folklore literature wherever it is found.


Mistletoe (Viscum album)

The most common form of this parasitic plant is the European mistletoe, which may be found growing on over 200 species of trees but particularly found on cider apple trees in my English county and in Brittany in western France. Usually its seeds are deposited in bird droppings on a tree branch. Mistletoe seeds are coated in a strong glue-like substance viscin, thus allowing seeds to cling to wood.

Through a complicated process, the seed germinates, and its root tissues (haustorium) penetrate the bark of the host tree, eventually tapping into the tree’s source of nutrients and water supplies. In time, mistletoe develops into ball like features hanging from the trees branches.  Such ‘hanging baskets’ make ideal nesting sites for birds. Recent research has revealed that mistletoe allows for biodiversity and food for animals and birds.

Its white berries were regarded by Celtic pagans as symbols of male fertility or as the source of poison, for these are toxic to humans. The Romans regarded mistletoe as a mystical symbol of peace and love, thus hanging sprigs of this plant over their portals to protect their families. Since the 18th century, decorative bunches of mistletoe are hung above house entrance doors at Christmas-tide under which lovers are meant to kiss and these branches are seen as a protection from evil spirits.

May I wish all readers, in three days’ time, to include The Borneo Post staff in all departments and all my Sarawakian and Sabahan friends, whatever your personal beliefs, “A peaceful and relaxing Christmas Day Holiday or Holy Day.” Perhaps you will find some time to reflect on past family gatherings of former years. Brighten the interiors of  your homes this Christmas with plants such as heliconia, orchids, and lilies with a bit of greenery. Do remember to find time to recall to your children and grandchildren your memories of what past Christmases meant to you. Christmas celebrations with family gatherings should always allow story-time telling for parents and grandparents.