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Berries, branches, boughs.

Byline: Paul Rogers


Perhaps it is because we horticulturists are overly aware of the importance of plants in people's lives that we observe the central role they play in many aspects of the holiday season. It's likely we see connections because they exist. Let us first count the ways plants, berries and exudates add to the celebration of the holidays.

Think holly trees, berries and their branches. We need to add mistletoe to the list. Christmas trees also certainly belong. Various kinds of evergreens used as swags, wreaths, door pieces and mantel decorations are used to a greater degree than in past years.

Fruit, pinecones and nuts are incorporated into arrangements. The fruit of the pineapple has signified "welcome" in New England homes for hundreds of years.

Two out of three of the gifts of the Magi originated in plants. Frankincense is the resin from the boswellia tree that grows at the foot of the Himalayas, and myrrh is the collected resin (like pine pitch) from the myrrh tree (Commiphora).

Yet the pre-eminent position that plants occupy in our celebration of the holidays is only an indication of the interweaving of agricultural and horticultural and religious beliefs and practices that have taken place over thousands of years.

The trail from present-day Christmas back to the old Roman Feast of Saturnalia is clear and easy to follow. Saturnus was the Roman deity who, it was believed, taught the art of agriculture and who welcomed the germinating impulse of nature.

A study of history tells numerous stories of that period of the year "when the Earth began to waken under the kiss of light, when new hopes rose in frozen hearts." The time of the winter solstice was well known by ancient people. They knew that the sun sets at 4:12 p.m. starting Dec. 3 and continues this early departure for 12 days. The sun rises later each morning until Jan. 9, prolonging the length of the night. The interplay between the length of sunrise to sunset remains constant from Dec. 18 for five days until Dec. 23, when daylength increases by one minute.

For civilizations based on agriculture, the time of short days was a period to relax, drink and party. The strengthening of the daylength signals a return to a productive life of the Earth. It is understandable that Vertumnus, the god of vegetation, (the green man) was offered wreaths of flowers and the first garden fruits.

Early Egyptian beliefs were that Horis, son of Isis, was born at the close of December. Horis (perhaps of horticulture) is seen in Greece and Norway and other Scandinavian countries as the embodiment of the spirit of renewal. The Druids observed the darkest days of the season in their great roofless temples such as Stonehenge, where torches blazed to reveal the sacred mistletoe harvested with a golden sickle from sacred oaks. The chief priest divided the mistletoe. Twigs were distributed to each head of household with a prayer in the belief that divine favor and a blessed harvest would follow.

Thus, the ancients observed the time period around the Winter Solstice in similar ways. Daylength and its effect on agriculture were the central theme.

In future columns, we will look at the Yule of northern Europeans, the Noel of the French, and the Christ Mass or Christmas of today.
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Title Annotation:HOMES
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Dec 9, 2007
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