The winter solstice, usually around 21 December, is when the sun is lowest in the sky and the hours of daylight are at a minimum for the year. It is also the foundation of the celebrations which we now recognise as Christmas. This day is taken as the official beginning of winter, but we know that from that point on, the hours of daylight will gradually increase and the sun will rise higher and higher in the sky, until it gives enough heat to start seeds germinating and enough natural light to encourage the animals to start giving birth to their young. In other words, the winter solstice is a sign that life of trees, food plants and animals which has been slowing down all through the autumn, will soon be starting again, even if there is still the winter to get through.
The winter solstice has been celebrated by almost all peoples since prehistoric times and is well recorded by the ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia which went on for days around the end of December with parties, presents, family gatherings and feasts which we can easily relate to as we celebrate Christmas. In fact the Church, in 354 AD, probably inspired by the if you cant beat em, join em syndrome, set Jesus Christs nativity on 25 December precisely in order to change these celebrations from pagan to Christian. The move worked and we now celebrate the birthday of Jesus at the winter solstice.
But pagan traditions linger on in the way in which we celebrate Christmas and, in particular, in the habit we have of bringing plants into the home during these festivities.
The ancient Celtic and Scandinavian peoples venerated trees for all sorts of reasons. Evergreen trees in winter represented the continuing persistence of life in an apparently dead landscape and so these plants, or boughs particularly, were brought into the house.
The British tradition of bringing a whole conifer tree into the house and decorating it apparently started in 1841, when Queen Victoria and her consort, Albert, imported an old German custom to Buckingham Palace (or wherever they spent Christmas). This rapidly spread to the whole of Britain and the empire, as well as to the United States. The tree most often chosen is the Norway spruce, picea abies, since it has almost perfect credentials in its conical form and long-lasting needles.
Christmas trees in Italy were much frowned on by the fascist regime which tried, in 1939, to discourage their use as an usanza esotica (foreign custom). This intolerance failed and Italy is now well established in the tradition, even though Italians insist on calling the tree abete, fir, when it is usually a picea, spruce.
Mistletoe, viscum album, is a very ancient sacred plant. It is a partial parasite, taking part of its nourishment from the tree which hosts it. To the ancients, it seemed miraculous in that it flourished in the air, apparently without roots, staying green when other trees had lost their leaves. This, together with its habit of showing a glistening white berry between two splayed leaves, made it a fertility symbol, and women hoping for pregnancy would wear it tied around their wrists or waists. In the 1800s a certain Reverend Stukely popularised mistletoe as Christian, which led to its current use, where kissing under the plant has become a Christmas and New Year tradition. However, because of its association with pagan practices, and even up to the 1960s in Britain, many churches would not allow mistletoe to be used as a decoration inside the church. Nowadays, it has become a standard Christmas decoration and is readily available over the festive season.
Hollys use as a Christmas decoration does not seem to be associated with ancient rites but rather with its shiny greenness, coupled with bright red berries. In Italy, where holly grows only at higher altitudes and doesnt always produce berries, there is the practice of tying little bunches of red berries from the butchers broom plant, pungitopo, to sprigs of holly to make them more attractive and saleable.
Italys floral contribution to the season is the stella di natale, (Peruvians called it Star of the Andes), botanically poinsettia or euphorbia pulcherrima. This plant, a native of tropical Mexico, was introduced into the United States in the 1830s by Joel Poinsett and rapidly became a great favourite worldwide as a Christmas plant, since at that season it produces a splendid display of green and scarlet (or pink or white), the traditional festive colours. The scarlet bracts, modified leaves, surround the true flower, which is yellowish in colour. In the tropics this plant is perennial and can reach a height of three or more metres but floriculturists here supply us with more manageable specimens. With care our stella di natale can also be perennial and survive year after year, but it is fragile and not everyone has the patience to see it through its complete cycle.