The nature of Christmas: wildlife's role in Christmas
PUBLISHED: 06:00 11 December 2016 | UPDATED: 17:12 12 December 2016
Many Christmas traditions draw on the natural world, and are often echoes of our pagan past. Charlotte Hussey of the Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust explores their surprising origins
The leaves have fallen and we’re getting ready for festive celebrations. But have you ever stopped to wonder why we bring trees into our living rooms, sing about holly and ivy or give cards depicting cheery robins? There are a great many Christmas traditions, as well as earlier winter festivities, that draw on nature.
Robins can be found in parks, gardens, scrub and woodland and have a loud territorial song that they sing from prominent perches throughout winter. Males and females have their own territories and call a truce only during breeding season, when the female is allowed into the male’s territory to set up a nest. There are many ideas about how the nation’s favourite bird became associated with Christmas. One is a story about a kind-hearted robin who got its red breast tending a fire to keep baby Jesus warm. Another, that the robin’s red breast became synonymous with the red uniforms of Victorian postmen who delivered Christmas cards and gifts.
Whatever the reason, the bird’s bright plumage and plucky character help it to stand out markedly at this time of year.
Mistletoe & its companion
Mistletoe was a symbol of love and friendship in ancient Norse mythology. In Britain, perhaps influenced by the Norse tradition, the custom of kissing under mistletoe developed, with a berry picked from the sprig before a kiss. When all the berries were gone there could be no more kissing (pick a big bunch...).
The plant is actually less than romantic – mistletoe is a parasite. It attaches itself to a tree and then grows out of the branch, drawing on the tree’s resources. Its name, even less charmingly, translates as ‘poo on a stick’, from the Anglo Saxon ‘mistel’ meaning dung and ‘tan’ meaning twig or stick. Seeds are spread by birds ingesting the fruit and pooing in trees.
The mistle thrush, a large songbird, commonly found in parks, gardens and woodland, gets its common name from its love of mistletoe. It enjoys the sticky berries and, once it has found a berry-laden tree, will guard it from any competitors. The bird also helps mistletoe to thrive by wiping its bill on tree bark to remove sticky residue, accidentally ‘planting’ the seeds in weak spots in the bark.
Holly & the crown
Found in a variety of habitats from woodland to gardens, holly, or more precisely, its berries, is an important food source for many birds, including redwings and fieldfares.
In pagan Britain, holly was used traditionally at winter solstice to ward off evil spirits and celebrate new growth. In Christian symbolism, the prickly leaves represent the crown of thorns Jesus was forced to wear when he was crucified, while the berries represent the drops of blood on his forehead. In Scandinavia, holly is known as the Christ thorn.
The bird also helps mistletoe to thrive by wiping its bill on tree bark to remove sticky residue, accidentally ‘planting’ the seeds in weak spots in the bark.
Tree of life
Over the years, the evergreen fir has become the tree of choice for people to celebrate Christmas. Ancient Christians saw it as a sign of everlasting life with God, while Romans used firs to decorate their temples at the festival of Saturnalia in December. Pagans used its branches to decorate their homes during the winter solstice as a symbol of the spring to come. Across many parts of northern Europe, cherry or hawthorn were used as Christmas trees – plants were put into pots and brought inside in the hope they would flower at Christmas.
So next time you bring the outside in, remember the reasons behind it and know that you are continuing traditions that stretch back into the deep past.
To find out more about winter wildlife, why not join a local Wildlife Trust event? They are led by experts and participants can explore woodlands, learn about wintering birds or even get down with the fungi.
Go to hertswildlifetrust.org.uk for details