University of Vermont
Department of Plant and Soil Science

gmg logo   December News Articleline


Dr. Leonard Perry, Horticulture Professor Emeritus
University of Vermont

The winter solstice, which occurs on or around Dec. 21 (in the northern hemisphere), 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.  Ancient peoples often used plants to mark this day—plants we still use today for this season.

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. Without our current knowledge of astronomy and celestial cycles, 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. You may see this Druid festival referred to as “Alban Arthan”, translated from Welsh as “light of winter.”

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.

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.  Many European cultures, especially the British, adopted this tradition, calling it the Yule log.

Some have written that the yule log must come from one’s own land, or be a present, not bought.  This legend says that it must be kept burning slowly for 12 days, before being put out.  The ashes were then scattered in fields, symbolizing the spreading of the power of the sun.  The yule log remains were to be kept until the next year, to light the new fire then and thus passing on the light from one year to the next.

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 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.  Druid holiday colors of red, green and white are represented by berries (red), greens, and white berries (mistletoe) or white birch bark.

Several plants, including holly, ivy, and mistletoe, were believed to bring protection and luck, and thus, were hung over doors to keep out misfortune.  The sharp leaves of holly were said to represent Christ’s crown of thorns, and the red berries symbolized the blood he shed.  In Scandinavia holly may be referred to as Christ thorn.

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. In Germany, ivy traditionally is used only outside.   An ancient tradition from the Midlands of England says that holly and ivy should not be brought into the house before Christmas Eve.  Based on a pagan belief that holly was a male plant and ivy a female plant, whichever one was brought indoors first would determine whether the man or woman of the house would rule that coming year.

The custom of hanging up mistletoe may stem from the Druid tradition of laying down arms and exchanging greetings under the mistletoe. Priests would send around youth bearing branches of mistletoe in celebration of the new year. Druids would dance to a particular song around oaks found bearing mistletoe. This custom is even mentioned in the writings of Ovid.

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.

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