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Nature at Christmas: 5 natural festive traditions explained

The festive season is upon us and with it comes a whole host of yuletide traditions. From bauble-covered Christmas trees to chocolate-coated yule logs, many of the customs we follow around this time of year are nature-related. A simple walk around the woods in winter can unveil a stocking full of festive folklore tales and traditions.

Both holly and robins are traditionally associated with Christmas (Photo: iStock)
Both holly and robins are traditionally associated with Christmas (Photo: iStock)

O Christmas tree

Putting up the Christmas tree is a sure sign that Christmas has well and truly arrived. Whether you top yours with a star or an angel, Christmas isn’t Christmas until the tree has been decorated. But where did this bizarre tradition of bringing a tree into the house originate?

Christmas trees have been popular since the 1800s (Photo: iStock)
Christmas trees have been popular since the 1800s (Photo: iStock)

Fir tree branches have been used as a decoration during winter festivals for centuries. The Christmas tree tradition as we know it today, however, it is said to have begun in Germany during the 16th century. Back then, it was decorated with a selection of edible treats, including gingerbread, gilded nuts and apples.

While many believe Queen Victoria and Prince Albert brought the tradition to the UK, it was actually King George III’s German wife Queen Charlotte, with the first known English Christmas tree being erected in 1800.

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were responsible for the increase in popularity of the Christmas tree in the UK, however, after a picture of them surrounding their tree was published in the Illustrated London News in 1848. 

Robin redbreast

As you peruse the Christmas card section of your local shop during the run-up to Christmas, chances are you will stumble across countless cards with robins emblazoned on them. But, as this cheerful little creature can be seen all year round, why is he so prevalent at Christmas?

There are several theories surrounding the origin of the Christmas robin, but the most likely reason dates back to the Victorian era, when the tradition of sending Christmas cards began. During that time, postmen would wear red jackets, earning them the nickname ‘robins’. As such, the robin became a prominent feature on many Christmas cards.

There are also many theories about where the robin got his red breast. Some say it was stained by the blood of Christ as the robin comforted him on the cross, while others believe that the robin’s breast was scorched by fire while fetching water for lost souls in purgatory.

While the yule log we know today is coated in chocolate, this wasn't always the case (Photo: iStock)
While the yule log we know today is coated in chocolate, this wasn't always the case (Photo: iStock)

The Yule log

The Yule log is another Christmas tradition that links directly with the natural world. While we might enjoy a delicious chocolate Yule log over the festive season, it hasn’t always been smothered in chocolate.

In Nordic tradition, part of the winter solstice celebrations involved the burning of a Yule log.  An entire tree was felled and brought into the house, then slowly fed into fire over the 12 Days of Christmas. Once the 12 days were up, the remains of the Yule log were safely stored to protect the house against lightning and evil spirits.

In England, Anglo-Saxon pagans would light candles on top of the Yule log as part of their midwinter festival traditions. The winter solstice marks the beginning of longer days and the candles on the Yule log were used to light up the house and welcome the spring sun.

The holly and the ivy

With rich green spiky leaves and bright red berries, holly is a staple for many at Christmas time. Whether it’s atop a Christmas pudding, part of a Christmas wreath or bundled up and tied in a bow, it is a welcome sight at this time of year.

So, why is it associated with Christmas? During the Roman period, holly was used as a decoration in the winter festival Saturnalia, a celebration of Saturn. It was said to be a sacred plant of Saturn and so Romans would send bushes and boughs in celebration.

Holly is also linked with the crown of thorns Jesus wore during his death. The leaves are said to symbolise the crown while the red berries symbolise the blood of Jesus.

Ivy is another plant closely linked with Christmas. Like holly, ivy was used in winter festivals, and was believed to have magical properties due to its evergreen nature. It was also said to represent eternal life and rebirth.  

The tradition of kissing under the mistletoe was particularly popular in Victorian times (Photo: iStock)
The tradition of kissing under the mistletoe was particularly popular in Victorian times (Photo: iStock)

Under the mistletoe

A cheeky smooch under the mistletoe could be the start of a festive romance, but why do we lock lips under this particular plant?

There are many stories surrounding the origin of hanging mistletoe at Christmas, and indeed, sharing a kiss underneath it. During the time of the ancient Druids, people would hang mistletoe in their homes as it was believed to ward off evil spirits and bring good luck.

In Norse mythology it was seen as a sign of love and friendship. Many believe the white berries on mistletoe symbolise the tears of Frigg, the goddess of love, as she cried for her son Baldr.

The tradition of kissing under the mistletoe became extremely popular during the Victorian era. A berry had to be picked from the bunch before receiving a kiss, and once all the berries were gone, no more kissing was allowed.  

As mistletoe flourishes at a time when most plants are dying, it has also been linked to fertility and life.

No matter how you're spending Christmas, chances are you will embrace one or many of these traditions over the festive period. Whether it's tucking into a yummy Yule log, decorating your Christmas tree or hanging a holly-covered wreath on your door, these traditions are a great way of enjoying nature and Christmas at the same time. 

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