The Midwinter Solstice is Here! From now on the days will get lighter.
We are at the point where winter is gripping us fast and yet the first signs of spring are already around us. There are tight curled sticky buds on the chestnut trees and the snowdrops are punching their way through the icy ground. Its a time of celebration and of hope - and this year we really need to embrace hopefulness!
Kay Turner and Sarah Heagney have done some research into the history, traditions and plants associated with the Solstice. Read on and discover the hidden stories behind this special time of year
Midwinter's Day: The time of the Oak and Holly Kings, of the Norse God Odin, of the Mother Goddess, the Sun God and the birth of the Divine Child
Yule is the Winter Solstice and the longest night/shortest day of the year. It falls on December 21st and is a festival which predates the Christian celebration of Christmas. Legends tell us that Celtic druids would cut the mistletoe, a symbol of life and light in death and darkness from the sacred Oak trees. The Yule log was lit during Yule to conquer darkness and banish evil spirits, as during this mid-winter point darkness peaks and there is a pause as the sun stands still, rising and setting in the same place. Our ancestors would have marked this point on the horizon in their stone circles. The Holly King who has ruled earth since Summer Solstice resumes his battle with his Oak King brother. This time the Holly King surrenders, and the Oak King wins initiating the Sun to begin its return.
The Evolution of Yule: Pre-Christian origins of the word Yule are thought to be linked to the name Jolnir, ‘the Yule one’, the long-bearded Norse god Odin, who delivered gifts with an eight-legged flying horse. This legend could have been a precursor to that of Father Christmas. In Scandinavia people celebrated a 12-day winter festival called Jul and activities included hanging evergreen wreaths and mistletoe and carol singing.
Christianity is likely to have layered Christmas traditions over these alongside adopting the narrative of the birth of the Divine Child, the sun god. The winter solstice is the birthday of both the Sun and Son, the Child of Light by the great Mother Goddess. Christianity reconfigured this as the Madonna and Child.
Masham, home of the Happy House, is the site of an Anglo Scandinavian graveyard which lies under the Market Place (in the photo above). Being a place where Vikings and Christians mixed and intermarried this may be one of the first places where the two traditions of Yule and Christmas came together.
Two Midwinter Plants - the stories behind the Yew and the Ivy
TREE: YEW Taxus baccata Eternity – Ancestors – Air & Water
The ancient and venerable Yew has magical associations with Winter and, through its toxicity, it is linked with death, but also with regeneration. It is a symbol of longevity and rebirth: when an old Yew dies, the fallen branches sprout roots and a new tree begins to grow. Yew trees frequently grow hollow at the centre, characterizing their place as guardians of the spiritual dimension and embodying the power of empty space.
Part of the Yew tree’s evergreen magic is undoubtedly its incredibly long life-span, with trees living up to 3,000 years, (they have to be over 900 years old to be officially recognised as an ‘Ancient Yew’). They are frequently to be found growing on sacred ground, beside churches, wells and springs, and are seen as an indicator of ancient places of worship, dating from Druidic and Celtic times.
During their long lives, Yew trees have become steeped in folk tales and traditions, many of which centre around burial practices and funerary rites. However, in some English counties there was also a belief that lost items could be found by taking a Yew branch to guide you as you searched. The custom was that the Yew would lead you straight to your lost belongings, with the branch turning in your hand as you reached them.
If you fancy a trip to meet a truly venerable tree, then some fine examples of Ancient Yews are; the Crowhurst Yew in East Sussex the Ankerwycke Yew in Surrey St Cynog’s Church Yew near Swansea the Fortingall Yew in Perthshire.
PLEASE NOTE: The bark, needles and berry seeds of Yew are all highly toxic, so please approach respectfully.
PLANT:IVY Hedera helix Love - Fidelity - Saturn
The deep green leaves and long, trailing stems of Ivy are to be found all over the British Isles. Its tendrils will wrap around trees and climb up walls, generally binding things together. Perhaps this tendency is why it has come to represent faithfulness, often being used in hand-fasting ceremonies and to adorn bridal bouquets. In old English tradition, Ivy was also used as a ceremonial binding to tie the last sheaf of the harvest.
Another interesting tradition, traces of which can still sometimes be seen in modern life, is the once widespread belief that Ivy had the power to prevent drunkenness.
In ancient times, Ivy crowns would be worn for this purpose and Bacchus, the Greek god of wine, is often depicted as wearing such a crown. To this day, you might find Ivy leaves appearing on old inn signs or carved decoratively into goblets.
Often a misunderstood plant, Ivy does not actually damage trees, but rather leans on them for support as it grows whilst maintaining its own, separate root system.
It flowers from September to November and is an important source of pollen for bees and insects at this rather frugal time of year. In the autumn, it puts out clusters of black berry fruits which, although poisonous to humans, provide a welcome winter food for the birds. If the Ivy in your garden spreads across the ground, rather than climbing, then you have Hedera Hibernica, the other subspecies of Ivy native to the Britain.
An ancient token of love, peace and protection (as well as hangover prevention!), this may explain why Ivy is so welcome at Yuletide, intertwined with Holly, and used around our homes as decoration.