Christmas In Ritual & Tradition - online book

The Observance Of Christmas In Various Lands And Ages.

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standards in the streets were likewise garnished." 4' Many people of the last generation will remember the old English mode of decoration—how sprigs of holly and yew, stuck into holes in the high pews, used to make the churches into miniature forests. Only upon the mistletoe does a trace of the ecclesiastical taboo remain, and even that is not universal, for at York Minster, for instance, some was laid upon the altar.42
English popular custom has connected particular plants with the winter festival in a peculiarly delightful way ; at the mere mention of holly or mistletoe the picture of Christmas with its country charm rises to the mind—we think of snowy fields and distant bells, of warm hearths and kindly merrymaking.
It is no wonder that the mistletoe has a special place in Christ­mas decorations, for it is associated with both Teutonic myth and Celtic ritual. It was with mistletoe that the beloved Balder was shot, and the plant played an important part in a Druidic ceremony described by Pliny. A white-robed Druid climbed a sacred oak and cut the mistletoe with a golden sickle. As it fell it was caught in a white cloth, and two white bulls were then sacrificed, with prayer. The mistletoe was called " all-healer " and was believed to be a remedy against poison and to make barren animals fruitful.43 The significance of the ritual is not easy to find. Pliny's account, Dr. MacCulloch has suggested, may be incomplete, and the cut­ting of the mistletoe may have been a preliminary to some other ceremony—perhaps the felling of the tree on which it grew, whose soul was supposed to be in it, or perhaps the slaying of a repre­sentative of the tree-spirit; while the white oxen of Pliny's time may have replaced a human victim.44
It is interesting to find that the name " all-healer" is still given to the mistletoe in Celtic speech,* 45 and that in various European countries it is believed to possess marvellous powers of healing sickness or averting misfortune.46
* In Welsh it has also the name of "the tree of pure gold," a rather surprising title for a plant with green leaves and white berries. Dr. Frazer has sought to explain this name by the theory that in a roundabout way the sun's golden fire was believed to be an emanation from the mistletoe, in which the life of the oak, whence fire was kindled, was held to reside.47
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