History of Holiday Greens
by Rob Sproule
If there is any truth in the expression “absence makes the heart grow fonder,” it may help to explain the intensity of the love affair that we Albertans have with our gardens. As we cloister together in our centrally heated homes through the depth of winter, our thoughts drift to the warming sunlight and thawing breezes of May.
Maybe that’s why, in the dead of winter when the solstice is bringing 4pm sunsets and taking the garbage out feels like a Himalayan expedition, we gather evergreen boughs together and bring them indoors. Seeing and smelling cedar, pine, and fir around us fulfills our craving for something green, if only for a little while.
We’re not new in pining for spring in the depth of winter. People have been hanging evergreens during the winter solstice for thousands of years in anticipation of the darkest days being soon behind them. While we hang the boughs from our mantles this year, let’s give a nod to the people who first gave us the idea.
While we use fresh evergreens to add the smells and sights of a classic Christmas in the home, ancient peoples around the world have long looked to them for good tidings through the dark days of the winter solstice. Because they kept their foliage through the long winter months, many cultures revered them as beacons of spring.
The Ancient Egyptians believed that winter was brought upon by the departure of Ra, the sun god. At the solstice, as they anticipated his return, they filled their homes with green date palm leaves to symbolize Ra’s triumph over death.
Evergreens were sacred to Celtic Druids as symbols of eternal rebirth. They hung holly and mistletoe around their homes in a tradition that still lives today.
Ancient Romans knew that the winter solstice meant the imminent return of spring and fresh crops in the fields. They brought evergreen boughs indoors for the feast of Saturnalia, held to honour Saturn, the god of agriculture.
Vikings, believing that evil spirits arose through the darkest days, put wreaths over their doors and brought evergreen boughs and entire trees indoor to protect themselves. Burning the largest log they could find on the longest night became a tradition, eventually becoming known as the yule log which persists today.
Caring for your Greens
If you’re shopping for evergreens for the first time, don’t let the selection overwhelm you. Reach for the cedar, pine, and fir for reliable, all-around evergreens.
When you get to the store, look for fresh boughs with vibrant colouring. Before you buy, pick up each bundle and give it a good shake. If it rains needles, put it down and keep walking until you find a fresher one.
Evergreen boughs are pretty low maintenance. If you are going to put them outside, then leave them outside through the season. If they freeze and stay frozen they will last much longer than if they thaw and freeze again and again. If you do get a warm snap and they thaw out, think about spraying them down to keep the moisture in.
If you bring them inside, then remember that they will desiccate faster if they are exposed to direct sunlight or left near a heating vent. Think of them as cut flowers, and the cooler and more humid they are, the longer they will last.
I suggest leaving a mister bottle near the wreath, swag, or arrangement you have indoors. When you think about it, give the needles a healthy spritz. The more moisture you put in, the longer it will last. Remember that boughs need moisture in order to exhale humidity and, most importantly, that deliciously earthy scent.