Nature 2013 December

Vestiges of Ancient Customs in the Landscape and in our Seasonal Traditions

Looking back to some of my earlier Nature Notes from 2004 I came across a mention of some traditions associated with celebrations at this time of year, which owe their origins to now long-forgotten customs and ceremonies. The importance of two particular plants associated with Yuletide and their presence in the local landscape seemed worth researching in more detail.

Of all the Yuletide traditions, those associated with Mistletoe – its literal meaning being – “dung on a twig” – still has its place in our annual festivities. However, the significance this mysterious plant once held in customs and religions has been lost. The quaint tradition of kissing under the Mistletoe has survived the claims for ownership of Christmas festivities by both religious and commercial interests. However, what we play out today are but the last remnants of the once dominant beliefs in ‘plant magic’. Plant magic over time evolved into herbalism, which, in turn, laid the foundations for both the systematic approach to plant science and modern pharmaceutical practice. However, an 18th century revival in Druidism also rejuvenated a belief in the mystical qualities of plants which had its origins in medieval if not earlier times and has survived through to today.

Mistletoe is found all over the British Isles, but particularly favours the valleys of the Scottish boarders and the sheltered damp lowlands surrounding the River Severn. The latter is still at the core of the apple-growing industry; a tree on which the plant flourishes. With its unique habit of magically springing up from nowhere, favouring the uppermost boughs of ancient fruit trees there is no surprise how it became a favourite of wizards of Druidic traditions. How could a rootless plant without obvious leaves spring-up but for possession of some mysterious qualities? Without our present-day knowledge that it has a semi-parasitic lifestyle, obtaining vital nutrients from the host tree, photosynthesises, and is spread by thrushes – and not just of the mistle variety – ridding their beaks of the sticky seed-infused liquor on rough bark, it is not surprising it was a subject of curiosity and the dark arts. Aside from its connections with fertility, which I will return to shortly, it was favoured as a treatment for epilepsy and could wither away tumours and warts. Not such weird efficacy when there have been very recent clinically tested claims that a distillation of the plant has been an adjunct to the treatment of cancer. That it can keep witches at bay, serve as a diviner’s tool for unearthing treasure, and was capable of protecting crops from pestilence can only add to its potency. Perhaps its not unsurprising then that until the 1960s, ecclesiastical law prohibited the presence of this plant inside or nearby any church.

Until at least the 19th century in country areas at least the strength of belief, in its powers to enhance fertility was such that it was overtly worn on a women’s wrists or more discreetly hidden around her waist. Only slightly further back in time a potion distilled from the fruit was charged with proven aphrodisiac properties would have also been obtainable. Given how seriously poisonous the fruits are this is definitely not one to be tried out! Today, we still acknowledge the traditions and associations of Mistletoe with fertility in a more refined, sanitised manner by ‘discreetly’ hanging a sprig and inviting or stealing a kiss. However, as recent as the first half of the 20th century there were seriously held beliefs recorded in Herefordshire that a bough bearing a excrescence of Mistletoe should be hung up above the inside of the front door as the clock struck twelve on New Year’s Eve, replacing the one which had occupied the position since the previous year-end, which in turn was taken down and burnt. Setting alight the plant also formed part of rituals that sought to ensure the fertility of the soil with a flaming ball of hawthorn and Mistletoe paraded across a prescribed length of ridges and furrows.

In Buckinghamshire, the plant’s occurrence is patchy. It has been found in profusion growing on one hundred-year-old Lime trees in West Wycombe Park and nearby on false acacia in the Rye in High Wycombe. However, both the drays of squirrels and irregular growths due to insect and bacterial incursions can easily be mistaken for the presence of Mistletoe. If it is to be found locally it will be most likely occur on very long-established apple trees perhaps a vestige of an abandoned orchard, hawthorns and horse chestnuts. However, superstitions have it that if found on an oak you are a dead cert for good fortune coming your way, a millionaire lottery winner in our midst, is a possibility!

Though for Christians, Holly acquired a special place being seen as a symbolic metaphor for the ‘crown of thorns’. However, its adoption also served to accommodate the rites of the older, pagan religions, which comprised a welter of other customs, traditions and superstitions that have developed around the mystic powers of Holly. To appreciate this heritage better one first needs to understand the important contribution Holly once made to the livelihood of rural communities. Step back no more than 75 years and it was valued as an important commodity. For instance, by providing a year-round source of fuel, and as a very robust material for stock fencing. Furthermore, Holly would be deliberately planted and regularly coppiced on woodland boundaries and in hedgerows to supply these needs.

Holly is relatively slow growing and a long-lived woody plant that carefully managed will eventually turn into a substantial bush or even medium-sized tree. For this reason at this time of the year, when hedgerows have lost their leaves one can be still lucky and spot such an example standing out in an otherwise bare strand of bushes. In fact, farming lore records that such a distinctive feature may be used over successive generations as a sightline for the ploughman. Elsewhere, trees would be allowed to grow and were coppiced so as to standout as boundary markers or as waymarkers for the cross-country traveller.

Superstitions and religious practices surrounding Holly reflect regional variations. In Buckinghamshire it was considered unwise to cut down a Holly tree for fear of the appearance of witches, whilst in Sussex a Holly in a hedgerow prevented witches using them as highways. Farmers in many areas would hang Holly above livestock brought inside for the winter to ward off evil spirits. Meanwhile, the medieval Yuletide tradition of placing Holly around the house was to prevent witches from casting spells on those within. The putting up and taking down of all greenery was governed by strictly observed customs and as important was the display of Holly berries which were seen as, you have guessed, a fertility symbol! Today we have little evidence of the former importance that Holly played in the local economy. As a consequence of changes in agricultural and forestry practice, Holly has lost all its former value in the rural economy. So no longer is it nurtured as a scarce resource, and we are now more used to seeing stunted bushes and the spectacle of woodlands overrun by rampant saplings, overrunning the woodland and limiting the diversity of plants that would normally make up the groundcover. However, despite the loss of traditional farming practices and Holly no longer regarded as a vital resource, vestiges of the erstwhile management of Holly trees are still to be seen in our hedgerows and woodland edges. Once armed with knowledge of its previous importance it is possible to find a few good examples locally.

So, these are two things to look out for on a winter walk. First, the glistening brassy-green of the Mistletoe reflecting the rays of the winter sun, and second, a solitary Holly tree standing out proudly in an otherwise defoliated hedgerow.

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