Christmas and the Natural World
It’s that time of year when much of our instinct is to light a fire, decorate our houses with the festive colours of green and red and hibernate with loved ones. But for those who don their woollies and brave the winter weather, a great deal of the imagery and tradition of Christmas is all around in our natural space, inspiration of the yuletide folklore for the superstitious and sentimental. An absolute age could be spent looking through the archives of Christmas tradition, from Pagan to Christian symbolism (some really interesting reading), but here I’ve narrowed down the way in which the natural world has contributed some gems for the picture of Christmas we conjure up in society today.
Not all of the UK population gets to experience a guaranteed white Christmas (climate change might wreak havoc on this; that’s another story!), but modern traditions were being shaped in the Victorian era, when Britain was in a mini ice age- think Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and fairs on the frozen Thames. Thus came an obsession with the white stuff; the unique formations of snowflakes and romanticised dew on the frosty ground. A treat for many with its surprise appearance, snow does have the tendency to interrupt the usual hustle and bustle of society and force us to take stock of home comforts, and what better time for this than at Christmas.
Trees feature a prominent role in festivity, providing the cargo for roasting chestnuts on an open fire, hosting the parasitic mistletoe that might be poisonous to us but inspires lip locking, and of course taking up temporary residence in our homes decorated in Christmas finery. These connotations are ancient, in particular the tradition of the Yule log; our chocolate dessert today was once a whole tree brought into the home and burned slowly into the hearth over the 12 days of Christmas- a Nordic and Germanic Pagan winter solstice custom. In doing this the home was protected from lighting and evil spirits for the year to come, though British celebrations became slightly more minimalistic through the years, taking branches of Oak into the house upon which to burn candles for the same effect. More widespread in society today is the celebration of the Christmas tree, often a real or plastic fir-type tree (an evergreen- see below), stemming from thousands of years of both Pagan and Christian tradition and made popular by the Royal family in the 1800s. Bringing a tree into the home was always a reminder of the Spring to come, and decorating one with lights like the night sky and mementos symbolic of blessings is now commonplace.
Wreaths of holly, ivy and other evergreens have a long history of symbolism, an important part of the Pagan winter solstice celebrations depicting the promise of Spring, evident through Persian and Roman empires as a show of importance and success, and representative of eternal life to Christians. Evergreen strains of shrubs like cherry and hawthorn also evolved to be part of bringing greenery into the home, planted in the hope that they would flower in time for Christmas. Holly especially was long thought to have powers in promoting new growth and warding off evil spirits, while the aforementioned mistletoe brought good luck dating back to Druids, and Kissing Boughs of the Middle Ages presented the opportunity for a kiss with each mistletoe berry (a symbolic relationship that remains today).
Many of the animals adapted to live in wintry conditions are associated with Christmas and take pride of place on cards and in stories, like the Polar bear and Penguin. But a couple of species closer to home have made a more recognisable mark on the season- the Robin, for instance, at its most conspicuous in the colder months when its song and plumage are vibrant (a Robin spotted in the summertime is a sorry sight, its moult rendering it quite unrecognisably dull). It is for this reason, presumably, that this bird has become a bold image of Christmas, although the older connection is to postmen, nicknamed ‘redbreasts’ in the Victorian era, evolving into an emblem on the cards delivered by these scarlet-clad carriers of festive greetings. The reindeer has also had its limelight, a once mythical creature that was one of the last to be domesticated, adopted by Western cultures as the flying means by which Santa rides his delivery sleigh. This may have had an ancient footing in Norse legend, with Thor, the God of Thunder, using magical goats to pull his flying chariot, but more recently since the 19 century this mythology has been exasperated in stories, carols and imagery- Santa’s reindeer were named in the poem ‘Twas the night before Christmas’. The real reindeer herders, the Nenets, the Dukha, the Chukchi people and others rely on these animals even today to make a living across many countries.
So what would our image of Christmas look like without the natural inspirations that have shaped such a widespread tradition? Taking a step back and appreciating the roots of this holiday season (not even necessarily needing a religious perspective) is just one way in which we can ground ourselves from being swept up in all that it has become today. Enjoying a walk outdoors with family and friends sounds like a pretty decent way to appreciate all that festivity has to offer, to me anyway, and hopefully to many more.
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