Recently I was in a concert featuring folk carols and
winter songs – it was amazing how many featured holly, mistletoe and ivy! Like the one in the title - Mistletoe new, Mistletoe Old. These winter fruiting plants remind us
that winter is not totally bleak and lifeless and bring hope for a new season. No wonder they have taken on immense
religious and mythical significance over the eons.
The stories and traditions surrounding this Christmas
greenery have their origins in pagan times, but have found their way into loads
of carols and festive stories, as David Scott from the Lagan Valley Regional Park explains.
Where would our hedgerow birds be without the
holly, mistletoe and ivy berries to see them through winter?
December 21st marks
the winter solstice in 2010. This occurs when the sun reaches its most
southerly decline which means in the northern hemisphere we experience our
shortest day, while those in the south have their longest. Probably spending it
by the beach in shorts, the lucky things!
The Pagan celebration of the
winter solstice is one of the oldest in the world. As ancient people were
hunter-gatherers, they spent most of their time outdoors, their lives dictated
by the seasons and the natural world around them. Before the arrival of
Christianity to this part of the world, the Celts had long been worshipping
both the sun and the moon. The sun was revered the most in recognition of its
power over the seasons.
It was from the Celtic
Druids that we got the Yule log - the word Yule coming from ancient Norse houl meaning wheel, referring to their
belief that the sun was a wheel that turned the seasons.
The Celts believed that the
sun disappeared for twelve days around the solstice. So throughout this period
the Yule log was burned to bring good luck, ward off evil spirits, and most
importantly, the light would win over darkness and let the sun return to the
world for another year.
Winter fruiting mistletoe,
holly and the ivy all became associated with Christmas because of the
solstice. The oak was the most
sacred of all trees and believed to be the first tree created. If the Druids
found mistletoe growing on the oak, they would harvest and bless it. The winter
fruit of the mistletoe became a symbol of life during the summer months.
The holly and the ivy are
synonymous with Christmas today. But in Celtic folklore, the Holly King would
battle the Oak King for the right to the goddesses. Of all the goddesses,
Holly’s true love was Ivy. The Ivy was seen as the goddess of fertility and the
Holly King was often depicted as an old man. Their union was seen as the new
light of the sun god encouraging fresh growth for the New Year. We “deck the
halls with boughs with holly” as a distant memory of when the branches were
hung over doors and windows to keep away evil spirits.
Learn more on our Winter
To find out more about our
past relationships with our woodlands and the folklore of our ancestors, join
the LVRP team for a walk in Belvoir Park Forest on the 18th of
December. Call 02890 491 922 for more details.
This was only last week....and it's coming back!
Over the Christmas break, spend an hour or three
along the Lagan! It’s become tradition in our family to work
up an appetite for the feast by going for a long walk along the towpath while
the bird cooks. (and really gets the head showered too) When you consider it’s
dusk by 3.30pm, you may as well enjoy the outdoors while it’s light, and then
get stuck into the food, the fireside and the movies!
And be sure to include some natural greenery in your
decorations. Now that I know a bit
more about the legends surrounding holly, ivy and mistletoe, it feels even more
‘right’ to keep up traditions stretching back thousands of years. And if you have a big garden or live
out in the country, the holly and ivy are free!
Snow scene photos by Stephanie Sim RSPB, and Holly and Ivy from Lagan Valley Regional Park
of Wisdom’ returns to the Lagan...and attracts seals too!
Exotic aquatic photographed on the Lagan
Here we go again with cold,
ice and snow!! But there are
compensations to the arrival of winter. Not just the return of migrating birds - salmon are
also back on the Lagan and following in their wake, seals.
So if you hear strange
caterwauling coming from the water like I did recently, no it’s not moorhens
squabbling or a duck in peril, but a seal announcing his presence. As you walk along the towpath, watch
out for sleek black heads in the water heading upstream after the salmon.
David Scott, Lagan Valley
Information Officer explains:
this time of year the salmon run has begun. The Atlantic salmon is a migratory
fish found in the temperate and Arctic regions of the Northern Hemisphere.
While spending most of their adult life at sea, these fish return to the
freshwater rivers where they were born to spawn. In the UK and Ireland this
happens during November and December.
Lagan has a small but growing population of salmon which return to replenish
the stocks. The population had been wiped out due to the build-up of pollution
in the river, which can be largely attributed to industrial practices. However,
in the late 1990s the salmon were reintroduced and have been successful ever
since. In 2009 two Laganscape volunteers spotted several pairs spawning at the Ballyskeagh
Bridge near Lambeg and there have been sightings of salmon jumping at Eel Weir
(upstream from Shaw’s Bridge) and Becky Hogg’s Weir (downstream from Moore’s
Bridge in Lisburn).
is also at this time of year the LVRP office receives an influx of phone calls
from walkers wondering if they have seen a seal in the Lagan or are their eyes
deceiving them? We have seals that regularly come into the Lagan to feed but
their numbers definitely go up when the salmon return. As these impressive fish
can grow to 1.5m, they prove too tempting for the seals which are trying to
fatten up for the months ahead. This also makes the seals unpopular with the
local fishermen (and fisherwomen) as well as some conservationists.
Desperately seeking Salmon of Wisdom...or any salmon!
salmon and seal are featured in Celtic folklore. There are many stories about
creatures who can transform themselves from seals to humans. The seals would come up onto rocks or
beaches and take off their skins, revealing the humans underneath. Once ashore, they were said to dance
and sing in the moonlight.
Although most mythological sea creatures were considered hostile or even
evil, the ‘seal people’ were considered to be gentle beings, perhaps because of
seals’ kind-looking eyes.
According to legend, The Salmon of Wisdom or Salmon
of Knowledge was originally an ordinary salmon that ate the nine hazel
nuts that fell into the Well of Wisdom from nine hazel trees surrounding the
well. In doing so, the salmon gained all the knowledge in the world. Moreover,
the first person to eat of its flesh would, in turn, gain this knowledge.
The poet Finegas spent seven years fishing for the
salmon. When he finally caught it, he instructed his apprentice, Fionn, to
prepare it for him. Fionn burned his thumb when spattered with a drop of the
hot fat from the cooking salmon and immediately sucked on it to ease the pain.
Unbeknownst to Fionn, all the wisdom had been concentrated into that one drop,
and he had just absorbed it all.
When he brought the cooked meal to Finegas, his master
saw a fire in the boy's eyes that had not been there before. When asked by
Finegas, Fionn first denied that he had eaten the fish. But when pressed, Fionn
admitted his accidental taste. Throughout the rest of his life, Fionn could
access this font of knowledge merely by biting his thumb.
we cannot guarantee wisdom from eating a salmon (a fishing permit is required
and most of the locals throw back their catches), or that you may get to dance
with strange beings by moonlight, there is a good chance to see some of our
river residents up close and personal.
you spot any of our watery visitors, download a copy of our wildlife recording
cards from www.laganvalley.co.uk
and send them in.