When the sun struggles halfway up the sky only to be gone again by 4pm, we know we’re approaching the shortest day.
At the winter solstice on December 22 the sun will reach its lowest midday point. For a few days it seems to set in the same place — hence solstice, from the Latin for sun stands. After this the sunsets creep northwards again, although it’ll be January before we notice any increase in daylight.
Folklore says that if the solstice is frosty the winter will be long, and whichever way the wind is blowing, that will be the prevailing direction for the next three months.
The midwinter sun had more significance when we were bound to the seasons. Using a marker such as a distant hill or standing stone, anyone could follow the setting sun along the horizon, or note the position of star-groups at night, to predict when the solstice would occur.
Our forebears stoked up their fires, ate and drank as much as they could afford, and brought in evergreens, symbols of life in the midnight of the year.
In the Danelaw — the chunk of England that King Alfred created in 866 in the hope of keeping the Danes quiet — the winter solstice began the festival of Juul, a name that survives in Yorkshire dialect as Yule.
Until 1572, York held The Riding of Yule and his Wife, a parade so popular that the Archbishop of York ordered the Mayor to ban it. Apparently it was more fun than his St Thomas Day services. But the Minster did embrace another Danish tradition, carrying a large bunch of mistletoe in procession to the altar.
The ancients thought mistletoe a magical plant, growing neither in heaven nor on earth, but in between. For the Greeks, Romans and Scandinavians, mistletoe was a symbol of friendship and peace.
Mistletoe first began to come indoors after the Restoration in 1660, and we’ve been kissing under it for almost as long. This uniquely British custom began in the servant’s quarters and migrated “upstairs” in the Victorian age. It’s only possible so long as there are berries left, for one must be removed with each kiss.
The heartland of English mistletoe is Herefordshire, where there are old cider-apple orchards whose mature trees are the ideal hosts. The oldest trees can bear up to twenty clumps. Birds, including the mistle thrush, eat the berries and spread the sticky seeds when they wipe their beak on a branch.
Like mistletoe, holly was linked with good fortune. A holly tree nearby protected a house from fire, which is why we have so many Holly Cottages. Holly wood was used in thresholds where it kept malign forces out, and for the same reason a holly wreath was hung on the front door. Yet midwinter was the only time that leaves from the living tree were allowed indoors. Holly’s spiked leaves reminded Christians of Christ’s crown of thorns and the red berries, His blood.
Holly is well furnished this year, while mistletoe is in good condition with plenty of pearly white berries. So celebrate the winter solstice by fetching some indoors, and bring their special magic to your home.