Plants of the Winter Solstice

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Plants of the Winter Solstice
By Dr. Leonard Perry
Extension Professor, University of Vermont

The winter solstice, which occurs on or around Dec. 21, is the first day of winter.
It's also the shortest day and the longest night of the year.

While most of us barely acknowledge its passing, to earlier cultures this was a
day of both trepidation and celebration.

The early Romans, Egyptians, Celtics and their priests called Druids, and others
observed that by December the fields were no longer producing crops, leaves had
fallen off the trees, and many plants had died. Daylight hours were waning, and
the sun was getting lower and lower in the sky. They feared the sun would
completely disappear, leaving them without light and warmth.  

They lit bonfires to light up the skies on this longest of nights both for warmth
and to coax the sun to return. They thought the fire would call out to the sun,
asking it to stop its descent into the earth and return to the sky.

The sun, considered a supreme being, was often considered ill, only to recover
with the longer days after the solstice. Some experts believe the word “Yule”,
another term for Christmas, came from the similar Gothic and Saxon words
meaning wheel.  This would have referred to the cycles of the sun.

Tradition of the Yule Log

Oak was usually used for these bonfires because, being a "strong," solid wood, it
was perceived to represent strength and triumph. The Saxons and Celtics often
kept an oak log -- usually the entire trunk of a tree -- burning for 12 hours on the
eve of the solstice. If the fire did not go out during this period, the household
would be protected and see an abundance of crops, good health, and other
desirable things in the coming year.

A piece of the log was saved to start the fire the following year with the belief that
"as the old log is consumed, so is the old year" with all its troubles. Many
European cultures, especially the British, adopted this tradition, calling it the
Yule log.

The Evergreen Tree

Other species of trees also played a significant role in solstice celebrations. The
Romans, Celtics, Teutons, and Christians, for example, all considered the
evergreen to be an important symbol of the continuity of life, protection, and
future prosperity as it was one of the only trees to stay green during the bleak,
"lifeless" winter months. Fir, cedar, and pine boughs and wreaths were used to
decorate homes.

Small gifts for the gods representing the sun, earth, and harvest also were hung
from the branches of pine trees in groves. Some people believe this custom
evolved into the Christian tradition of decorating an evergreen tree in December.

Other Sacred Trees

Other sacred trees of the solstice were the yew (symbolizing death and the last
day of the solar year), silver fir (winter solstice day and rebirth), and birch (new
beginnings).  The Celtics believed plants brought indoors during the solstice
would assure woodland spirits safe refuge there during the winter months.  They
used yellow cedar (arborvitae) to symbolize cleansing and purity, ash to
symbolize the sun (considered a supreme being) and protection, and the pine for
peace, healing, and joy.

The Holly and the Ivy (and Mistletoe)

Several plants, including holly, ivy, and mistletoe, were believed to bring
protection and luck, and thus, were hung over doors to keep out misfortune. Ivy,
which also stood for fidelity, healing, and marriage, was worn as a crown or
fashioned into wreaths and garlands for decorations during the winter months.

Wheat, with its links to agriculture in many cultures, also has significance to the
solstice. In addition to being baked into bread, cookies, and cakes for solstice
feasts, it was woven into wreaths and straw figures to encourage sustenance,
fertility, and an abundant harvest.