Reflections in Nature: Christmas customs
The custom of using evergreens to help celebrate goes back almost 2,000 years. In pre-Christian days, it was believed evergreens contained magical powers because the trees remained green throughout the year.
Evergreens first were used in celebrating the winter solstice, which is the shortest day of the year in regard to the amount of sunlight. On this day, the sun passed in its long journey southward, paused and then began its journey northward. The celebration meant that spring would again come in 14 weeks.
The use of an evergreen tree stems from the 14th century when the Christian church began using plays to educate people about the scriptures. An evergreen tree decorated with apples was the major prop used in these plays.
After Dec. 25th became the universally accepted day to celebrate Christ’s birthday, the evergreen tree became associated with Christmas.
The first Christmas trees, which often were called Christ’s trees, were decorated with artificial roses (a symbol of the Virgin Mary) and flat wafers (a symbol of the Last Supper).
In Latvia and Estonia, during the 16th century, the first Christmas trees as we know them today appeared. However, the Germans are credited with developing the Christmas tree tradition.
Because Pennsylvania harbored many German immigrants, we can lay claim to having the first Christmas tree in America.
In 1747, people living in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, decorated trees for their children on Christmas Day. Today, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, still is known as “The Christmas City.”
In some books you can read that Hessian soldiers, who fought for the British in the American Revolutionary War, introduced the Christmas tree to the colonists. Being homesick, the soldiers went out in the wilds of Pennsylvania, where they cut trees to decorate.
The first trees decorated were tabletop trees but larger trees soon became more frequently used. To add color to their trees, the colonists decorated with items from nature, such as mistletoe, winterberry holly branches, acorns, nuts and milkweed pods. Decorations also were made from cloth, leather and whatever was available.
Mistletoe grows on trees in the South. It is an evergreen plant that actually is a parasite that grows on tree trunks.
Because mistletoe, unlike other parasites, produces chlorophyll, it is considered to be hemiparasitic. The plant is anchored to a tree limb by a simple tube known as haustoria. It’s from this tube that the host’s water system is tapped for water.
“Haustoria” is derived from the Latin word haurire, meaning “to drink.” Only water is taken from the host tree by the mistletoe plant.
Its genus name of Phoradendron comes from a Greek word meaning “tree thief.”
Mistletoe also was used in solstice ceremonies because the plant remained green throughout the year. The Druids believed that trees, especially those oak trees having mistletoe growing on them, gave the sun its energy and they used golden blade sickles to cut mistletoe from oak trees.
Oak trees are more often struck by lightning than other trees because of their high water content. The Druids also burned oak logs during this ceremony, and this is where the tradition of burning a yuletide log comes from.
Mistletoe is spread from tree to tree by birds that have eaten the white berries. This is done by either excreting or smearing the seeds on branches when wiping the sticky berry juice off their beaks.
The waxy substance on the berry acts as a glue to hold the berries to a tree. Even after passing through a bird’s system, this glue will not be destroyed; it might even be strengthened.
The plant is dioecious (male and female flowers on separate plants), with the female plant producing the berries.
Kissing under the mistletoe is a custom that began in the early 17th century. A person caught standing under a mistletoe sprig must forfeit a kiss, with a berry removed for every kiss. After the last berry is gone, the kissing stops. This tradition dates back to Norse mythology, which dedicated mistletoe to the Goddess of Love.
Well, our Frasier fir is up and decorated. Although the tree looks beautiful and smells good, I have yet to smell cookies baking. I hope you all have a Merry Christmas.
Bower retired after 34 years as a wildlife conservation officer for the state Game Commission. Questions and comments may be sent to him at 1224 Redington Ave., Troy PA 16947.