There are some people who put up a Christmas tree in October! They assume that seeing them in the shops means Christmas has actually begun – traditionally you shouldn’t put them up before Christmas Eve, and leave them up till February 1st, they say that doing different is bad luck or attracts evil spirits depending on which country you live in, assuming your country has Christmas trees, of course. But I’m sure most of us will have put some kind of decoration up by now. I tend to prefer some natural decorations – real holly, ivy and that kind of thing.
Today we’ll look at another carol, “The Holly and the Ivy” and see how these plants are highly appropriate for making our Yuletide “gay”.
The use of natural plants to decorate homes during winter is as old as civilisation itself, even older. Some historians still hold on to the pre-Victorian fantasy of thinking the use of greenery is always ritual. There’s no historical reason to assume that in all cases. People decorated their homes for the same reason we do today. Why do we paint our walls? Why do we hang pictures and photos on walls? Because our living spaces would be dull and boring without them, and the ancient peoples were just as capable of making the same choice.
Holly is a good example. People were decorating their homes with holly long before any ritual meaning was attached to it. Today a lot is written about the early Christians giving holly a new meaning by equating the thorns on the leaves with Christ’s crown of thorns. This was to persuade those very devout worshippers (today we might call them puritans, or perhaps fundamentalists) that there was no evil in placing holly in homes or places of worship.
Holly is one of many evergreens to have two sexes. Trees with berries are regarded as female and those that carry to pollen as male. It is known that these trees can, very occasionally, swap sex. A partial transformation took place recently in one of the world’s oldest evergreen trees, the Fortingall Yew. Tradition says that this Scottish tree is about 5,000 years old – that’s older than Stonehenge! It’s actually only about 2,000 years old, but that’s still VERY old.
This illustration shows you what the tree looked like in 1822. Yews are also trees which have lots of ancient legends attached to them, and they are one of the few trees you can find in almost every British church graveyard.
In October this year botanists from the Royal Botanical Garden in Edinburgh discovered that one branch of the ancient tree had grown berries. In its entire recorded history the Fortigall Yew has been “male” and has never produced berries. Some of the media got into a frenzy over this “transgender tree”.
Trees like this yew can switch sex all over, not just one branch, and botanists believe the change has occurred because the tree is so split and divided that the branch in question produced berries as a fluke.
Holly trees can also change completely from one sex to another. Botanists believe it is a survival mechanism and that changing sexes saves certain nutrients from being used up.
That’s the holly, what about the ivy?
Ivy has different associations depending on which part of the world you live in. In northern Europe it was seen as a symbol of eternity and longevity due to it’s presence throughout the year.
In southern Europe ivy was strongly associated with the Greek god Dionysos and his Roman incarnation Bacchus, the gods of wine, pleasure, revelry, drunkenness and fertility. Greek myth says that Dionysos had a mortal son called Kissos who died young. The goddess Gaia took pity on Dionysos and turned Kissos into the ivy plant (kissos is the Greek word for ivy). Ever since then Dionysos wore a wreath of ivy around his head. Modern depictions, however, mistake this ivy wreath for vine leaves which come from a totally different myth about Dionysos and the death of his boyfriend Ampelos. This other myth made Dionysos god of homosexuality, or same-sexual acts (Eros was the god of same-sex love and relationships).
The early Roman Christian church, especially in countries steeped in the Greek and Roman myths, had a problem with worshippers bringing ivy, Dionysos’s symbol of pleasure and fertility, into holy places (too much like uncontrolled, drunken sex, they thought). The Celtic Christians in the north had no such qualms. Perhaps the Roman church played on ivy’s northern associations with longevity and eternal life and came to adopt it as a symbol of Christ’s promise of eternal life.
The strongest link between ivy and Dionysos and Bacchus comes in their specific emblem called the thyrsus. This is a wand made from the stalk of a fennel plant topped with a pine cone. Around the stalk is entwined ivy. Academics say this thyrsus is represents the male penis (academics like bringing sex into things). Dionysos’s followers and servants carried a thyrsus at all of his hedonistic celebrations and rituals.
So, what could any lgbt seasonal celebration be complete without a bit of holly, ivy and a few pine cones?
Now that we’ve Decked the Halls let’s hear a rendition of the “The Holly and the Ivy” itself. Here’s the Denver Women’s Chorus.