5 Festive Facts Explained

frosty holly
Holly is the male symbol of fertility (Photo: C Borrowdale/WTML)

The yuletide season is here and with it comes a wonderful selection of stories and traditions. Many of the tales we tell and traditions we follow around this time of year are based in nature. A wintry walk in the woods could reveal a stocking-full of winter festival folklore origins.

Yule log traditions

Nowadays on Boxing Day, when we can’t even so much as look at a turkey, we might turn to the chocolate Yule log as a source of sustenance. The Yule log hasn’t always been smothered in chocolate though, the tradition hails back many years to a time before central heating.

In pre Medieval 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 in a great ceremony. The largest end of the tree was placed into the fire and lit from remains of previous year’s log. The tree was then slowly fed into fire over the festival. After twelve days, the remains of the Yule log were safely stored to protect the house against lightning and evil spirits for the following year.

Sessile Oak R Becker WTML
(Photo: WTML)

In England, Anglo-Saxon pagans would light candles on top of the Yule Clog or Christmas-block 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 practice of burning Yule logs continued in the west and north of England into the early 20th century. Ghost stories were told and card games played around the Yule log which burned on the hearth. One was always very careful to ensure the log stayed lit as it was unlucky to have to re-light it. On Christmas Eve, the youngest member of party would light two candles from the burning Yule log and everybody present would make silent wishes about the year to come.

In England, oak has been traditionally used for Yule logs. When you see an oak tree in the woods, imagine trying to fit the whole thing into the fire!

Holly and ivy symbolism

Brightly coloured holly is often used to decorate the top of the Christmas pud these days. It also appears in festive garlands; its red berries adding a welcome splash of colour.

In pre-Christian tradition holly was the male symbol of fertility and ivy the female partner. During winter festivals a young boy dressed in a suit of holly and young girl in ivy would parade through the village bringing life and greenery to the darkest part of the year.

Frosty Ivy C Borrowdale WTML
Ivy symbolises fertility
(Photo: C Borrowdale/WTML)

Taking holly into the home was thought to protect the house against malevolent mischief-causing fairies. It was considered bad luck, however to fell a whole holly tree. It was a known fact that witches ran along the tops of hedges, and a well-placed holly tree caused an excellent obstruction. 

So, the next time you pick a sprig of holly for the top of your festive dessert just remember to keep hold of it to ward off mischievous fairies!

Find out more about ivy

Mistletoe meaning

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

Druids considered mistletoe as a plant of vivacity and fertility with its evergreen leaves and wintry white berries.

The tradition of kissing under the mistletoe is said to come from Norse mythology. Baldr, son of Frigg, the Norse goddess of love and fertility, is plagued with dreams of his impending death. In order to prevent his untimely demise, Frigg extracts a promise from all living things to do no harm to her son. She overlooks the unassuming mistletoe and Baldr is killed by an enemy arrow made of the plant.

In the happier version of the story, Frigg’s tears fall upon the mistletoe arrow and turn into white berries. Baldr is brought back to life and Frigg proclaims that anyone standing under the miraculous plant will come to no harm and will receive a kiss as a token of love.

Mistletoe With Berries Wikimedia Commons
A kiss under the mistletoe?
(Photo: Wikimedia commons)

In Victorian England male servants were allowed to steal a kiss from their best girl under the mistletoe and a refusal would bring very bad luck. It is said that a man would pluck a berry from the bunch with each kiss and the privilege would end once all the berries were gone.

So next time you pucker up under the mistletoe, remember you're keeping a tradition alive!

Find out more about mistletoe

Robin redbreast emblem

Little robin redbreast often pops up in childrens' books and cartoons and is the gardener’s best friend, often depicted perched on a spade in a chilly veg patch.

The association of the robin with Christmas time comes from a connection to the postman. Victorian postmen wore red jackets which earned them the nickname ‘robins’. The bird then became a popular feature on Christmas cards as a symbol or emblem of the postman delivering the card.

Robin B Carter WTML
Robins love a wintry sing-song
(Photo: B Carter/WTML)

There are 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. Others that the robin’s breast was scorched by fire while fetching water for lost souls in purgatory.

When you’re writing your Christmas cards this year, remember one for your postman ‘Robin’!

Christmas tree history

Whether you prefer tinsel or baubles or a combination of them both, Christmas isn’t Christmas until the tree is decorated. But where did this bizarre tradition of bringing a tree into the house come from?

The fir tree is the traditional Christmas tree and fir branches have been used for centuries to decorate houses during the winter festival. The evergreen nature of the fir represented life and fertility and was a celebration of the coming spring.

Christmas Tree Pine Cone D Lee WTML
How do you decorate your tree?
(Photo: D Lee/WTML)

The Christmas tree roughly as we know it today seems to have begun as a German tradition in around the 15th Century. It really caught on in England during the 1880s when Queen Victoria’s husband Prince Albert had a Christmas tree installed in Windsor Castle and suddenly a trend was set. Trees were decorated with candles, nuts and fruits.

As you untangle the fairy lights and decide between an angel or a star for the top of the tree, imagine adorning the branches with candles in the halls of Windsor Castle instead.

Count other traditions inspired by nature next time you're out

Tell us your festive folklore tales...

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