Every year, at the beginning of the Christmas holidays, we start reading Enid Blyton’s The Christmas Book, first published in 1944, which follows four children, Susan, Benny, Peter and little Ann as they enjoy a charming family Yule at home with Mummy and Daddy.
The reason we love this book so much is for the myths and legends behind Christmas traditions which Daddy explains to his rapt offspring. In the Foreword, Blyton thanks her good friend, Mr L. J. F. Brimble “who spent much time and trouble hunting for the origins and meanings of many of our curious old customs”. Lionel John “Jack” Brimble was born in Radstock in Somerset in 1904, the son of a blacksmith and an innkeeper, so his childhood must have been steeped in these old country customs. He went on to study botany at Reading University and later became the editor of Nature magazine.
Daddy tells the children how holly was used by the Romans to deck their temples at the feast of Saturnalia alongside other evergreens.
‘Why did they use evergreens?” asked Anne. ‘Just because they were green?’
‘People of olden times had a strange belief,’ said Daddy. ‘They thought, you see, that there were many gods and goddesses living in the woods and in the hills among the trees and bushes. Well, when the wintry weather came, they thought these gods would be cold. So, they brought evergreen boughs into their houses and temples, thinking that the forest gods and goddesses would be able to come with them, and nestle in the greenery to escape the bitter frosts outside.’
These days, even if we don’t think there are gods and goddesses living in our foliage, we still love to bring greenery indoors. Mantlescaping – artistically draping our mantlepieces with evergreens and decorations – is all the rage this year. What is more romantic than a kiss underneath the mistletoe? Perhaps because we can’t get out so much in these short, dark days we want to bring the outdoors in. Maybe a primitive part of us still believes there are spirits residing in the holly, the ivy, and the mistletoe.
‘The Curious Mistletoe’ has a chapter all to itself in The Christmas Book. Daddy explains how long ago, before the birth of Jesus Christ, druids used to worship oak trees and the mistletoe which grew on them as a parasite, and how in many countries it is thought to ward off evil spirits. Blyton also retells what I think is the saddest story in Norse myth, the tale of Balder, the bright and beautiful, whose mother, the goddess Frigga, made everything on earth swear not to hurt him. But she forgot about the humble mistletoe. The gods made a new sport of hurling weapons at Balder, because nothing could kill him. When the wicked god Loki found out about this, he tricked Balder’s blind brother Hodur into throwing a spear made out of mistletoe at him, which of course killed him.
If you are out and about on walk over the next few days, the Woodland Trust has published a guide to how to forage responsibly for Christmas decorations. In my own house, I have used leftover branches from our Christmas tree, together with some eucalyptus leaves and ivy flowers to make a festive vase for our hall table and bring a bit of evergreen magic into the house.