The winter solstice is a time of renewal, rebirth, and a return of the sun. It marks the first day of winter, but it’s also one of the four seasonal holidays that mark the turning of the Wheel of the Year. The solstice is also known as Yule, which means “returning light” or “returning sun.”
The plants of the winter solstice play an integral role in this seasonal celebration that marks the turning of the Wheel of the Year. Evergreens such as conifers, holly and ivy, and mistletoe have their own folklore associated with them. These plants can be used to honor the season, celebrate its wisdom, and return home.
On the winter solstice, the sun shines at its lowest point in the sky. The shortest day of the year is a pivotal point in the year, and our ancestors celebrated this date by acknowledging the darkest days and celebrating the returning light. Our modern festive traditions derive from those early celebrations.
Historical Use of Evergreens
Throughout history, people have brought evergreen plants into their homes during the winter months as a symbol of hope and trust that the light will return and as a reminder that evergreens symbolize life.
In ancient times, villagers kept evergreen plants in their homes until the first signs of Spring—which could have been towards the festival of Imbolc on February 1st.
Today, we still embrace this ancient tradition by making Christmas wreaths, boughs and decorative trimmings with coniferous evergreens such as pine, spruce, and fir along with holly, ivy, or mistletoe.
Evergreens have long been associated with the Winter Solstice and the time of year when we celebrate Yule and Christmas. Whether you believe their mystical powers to be real or not, you might like to incorporate some of these ancient traditions into your own celebrations. At the very least, using natural decorations such as evergreens makes for beautiful, sustainable, and recyclable decorations in your home during the festive season.
The trees you decorate with lights and ornaments are part of an old tradition that has been practiced since ancient times. Evergreens have always been associated with themes of protection and prosperity, as well as that of a continuation of life and renewal. After all, when all the other trees have lost their leaves and gone dormant for winter, your evergreen family of trees will still be green. If you don’t feel like bringing a full sized tree into your house, consider utilizing fallen branches of pine, fir, juniper, and cedar to make boughs and swags, or even your own wreath. The added bonus is that most evergreens smell amazing, so you’ll get the scents of the season.
Holly is associated with the Holly King—a precursor to Santa Claus—who is conquered by the Oak King when Yule rolls around.
Ancient peoples used holly wood for both weapons and for magical purposes—Hang a sprig of holly in your house to ensure good luck and safety to your family; wear it as a charm or make holly water by soaking leaves overnight under a full moon in spring water.
Ivy, with her beautiful twisting vines and heart-shaped leaves, represents eternity. Because she is often found twining around dead trees, she symbolizes the soul and resurrection after death. The Roman god of wine and revelry, Bacchus, is associated with ivy because he is frequently depicted wearing an ivy crown. Celtic ancestors used ivy as a sacred herb; they believed that wearing an ivy crown helped clear their minds.
Ivy is an evergreen plant that survives in harsh weather conditions. It was used by ancient pagans in fidelity, love, and protection charms. Brides would carry ivy, mistletoe and holly on their wedding day to promote fidelity and long life. Ivy is the perfect plant for this time of year: it’s hardy, enduring, and able to live on after its host plant dies. Use it in magic performed for healing or protection, but also use it to represent family bonds – use it in your Yule decorations to represent the powerful bonds between friends and family members.
Ivy—once forbidden by Christians as decor because of its ability to grow in shade and its association with secrecy and debauchery—is now honored with its own Christmas carol and widely accepted as a festive decoration.
The mistletoe plant is a symbol of love and fertility, goodwill, and peace. The Druid priests held the mistletoe in high esteem and used it in their sacred ceremony, which was held five days after the new moon following the Winter Solstice. They cut the mistletoe from its host, the Oak, with a golden sickle and distributed it to the villagers, who hung it over their doorways as protection against evil.
The Norsemen laid down their arms if they met beneath a growth of mistletoe — why not use it in a working to end strife and discontent in your life? You can place sprigs of mistletoe around your home and on tabletops in vases and bowls; or even make what’s called a “kissing ball” to hang in the doorway.
Honoring the Sacred Plants
The winter solstice is a time of magic and wonder. When we invite nature back into our celebration, and reconnect with ancient traditions, we enter a magical world of wonder. Let us go there together this winter, and celebrate the spark and spirit of new life by drawing on the natural magic that lies at the heart of winter solstice celebrations. This is rejuvenating magic, meant to return us to a place of joy and light at the darkest time of year. The holidays can often be a hectic time, but taking a moment to honor the sacred evergreens of the winter solstice can help us get back in touch with the natural rhythms of life.
MOre to Explore
Interested in learning more about the Winter Solstice, Yule, or other sacred days on the Wheel of the Year? Here are a few articles to check out: