Origins ❅ Mistletoe, Holly, and Yule Logs

In “The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.” author Washington Irving in 1820 describes memories of Christmas Eve:

❝ The Yule-clog and Christmas candle were regularly burnt, and the mistletoe with its white berries hung up, to the imminent peril of all the pretty housemaids.❞

In less than one week it will be Christmas! Eek! I’ve just watched “Scrooged” with Bill Murray and yesterday watched “A Christmas Carol” with Captain Jean-Luc Picard Patrick Stewart as Mr. Scrooge. I’m still trying to get into the Christmas  spirit, so please indulge me as I share a little knowledge on the origins of mistletoe, yule logs, and holly. ‘Tis the season for giving, after all…


real-mistletoeEach Christmas, we hang mistletoe over doorways in an attempt to steal that kiss we’ve been dying to get all year. It’s the stuff of lyrics. But why would anyone kiss under some shrubbery?

Mistletoe is a parasitic plant that grows mostly on hardwood trees, absorbing its nutrients. The waxy red or white berries can be poisonous and its pointy, leathery leaves remain green throughout the year.

There are many myths surrounding this ancient plant. The Vikings of the eighth century believed that mistletoe could resurrect the dead. The first century Druids of Britain believed that mistletoe could perform miracles, from curing diseases to protecting oneself from witchcraft to increasing fertility. The Celts hung mistletoe in their homes for good luck and to ward off evil spirits. In fact they believed in its potency for luck so much that it was said that if enemies met in the woods beneath mistletoe, they would lay down their arms and a truce would be called until the next day. This led to the practice of mistletoe being suspended over doorways for luck.

For years after Christianity had overtaken Europe as the major religion, these practices were forbidden as being pagan. However, during the Victorian era, mistletoe made a comeback in English homes, and were hung again over doorways. If someone was found to be standing under mistletoe, they would be kissed by someone else in the room, a custom very otherwise uncharacteristic in Victorian society.


hollyHow could we possibly celebrate Christmas without decking the halls with boughs of holly? It’s perhaps the most distinctive decoration in homes and stores everywhere in celebration of the season.

Holly was the sacred plant of the Roman god of harvest, Saturn. During the feast of Saturnalia, Roman citizens would exchange gifts of holly wreaths with each other Many centuries later, to avoid persecution, Christians would pick up this tradition and decorate their homes during the Roman festival.

The holly plant has come to stand for peace and joy, and was once believed to frighten off witches. Sprigs of holly were also put on the bedpost as this was believed to bring about sweet dreams. In Germany, a piece of holly that has been used in church decorations is regarded as a charm against lightning.

As time passed and Christians grew to embrace more pagan customs as their own, holly became more associated with Christmas and less with pagan traditions, gaining mainstream acceptance.


yule-logYule was the name of the ancient winter festivals held by the indigenous Germanic people of Northern Europe. In fact on the modern calendar, yuletide lasts for the period between late November and early January.

The word “Yule” has several suggested origins, including Old Norse mid-winter festival “jól” and the Anglo-Saxon festival “Iul” (meaning “wheel”). In old almanacs, Yule was represented by the wheel, a pagan symbol for the sun, indicating the year turning like a wheel, and huge yule logs were burned in honor of the sun.

The Yule Log was originally an entire tree and it was ceremoniously chosen, cut, and brought into the house. The largest end of the log would be placed into the fire hearth while the rest of the tree stuck out into the room. In some cultures, the log would be lit from the remains of the previous year’s log by the daughters in the family or the lady of the house. The log would be sprinkled with salt, oil, and mulled wine, and prayers would be offered to protect the house from the Devil and lightning.

With the advent of Christianity, the Yule log tradition continued on a smaller scale and even the hearths grew smaller over time. These small hearths were perfect for baking cakes and by the turn of the 17th century, yule log cakes became more popular.

Parisian bakers popularized the cake in the 19th century, and different bakeries became known for their more elaborate decorations.


Featured image: “Cone and Holly” By Petr Kratochvil [GFDLCC-BY-SA-3.0, or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons



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