Tales from a Christmas Coppice

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Winter woodland – such a vital part of the festive season

Trees and things woodland have featured throughout the seasonal celebrations for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Evergreens are mentioned in ancient carols and hymns and remind us that life continues during every part of the year.

Holly, ivy and mistletoe are the most obvious green plants growing in British native woodland during the winter, and this is most likely why they feature so much in the season’s traditions.

Village life centuries ago included a midwinter custom of singing contests between men and women, where the men sang carols praising holly and its masculine qualities and how it was better than ivy, while the women sang about the feminine qualities of ivy and how it was better than holly.

Woodland provided most of the fuel used for cooking and heating and was particularly important at this coldest part of the year. It gets a mention in a popular carol. The ‘poor man’, spotted when Good King Wenceslas looked out was in the woods ‘gathering winter fu-ooo-el’.
The Norse festival of ‘Jul’ (‘Yule’ to you and me), involved the burning of a large log in the hearth over the days of celebration and feasting. The Yule log was kept alight over the period by pushing it gradually into the fire, and afterwards a piece would be kept with which to light the following year’s log. Nowadays, accommodating such a hefty log in the fireplace for nearly a fortnight might prove a trifle inconvenient, so instead we nod to the tradition with a chocolate log. The Christmas tree, as we know it, was made popular by Queen Victoria’s husband Prince Albert, who brought the custom from his native Germany. There are a number of legends as to how/why a small fir tree became such a potent symbol of Christianity.

My personal favourite concerns Saint Boniface, who was born in Wessex in about 975 AD Legend has it in Germany that he felled a great oak tree under which a child was to be sacrificed. Among the roots of the felled oak was a small fir tree, which Boniface said from that point should represent the love and mercy of God. Boniface is believed to have visited the Isle of Wight, and possibly the area where Bonchurch is now located. In the Domesday Book, the village was called Bonecerce – in Anglo-Saxon, Boniface’s church. Mistletoe is another woodland feature with strong seasonal associations that date back to Pagan times. It grows in a semi parasitic manner on a variety of trees including apple. It used to be gathered from sacred groves by Druids using golden sickles. The story goes that no harm should befall anyone who is standing under mistletoe, only a token of love. Hence, our tradition of kissing under it. In my early years, the vision of grannies and maiden aunts advancing on me while brandishing a sprig of mistletoe was enough to send a pre-pubescent boy running for cover. A knock on the door from carol singers has its roots in the tradition of ‘wassailing’, once a common seasonal tradition all over the country. The word itself derives from the Old English blessing ‘wæs hæl’, meaning ‘be healthy’. It is also a drink, usually hot mulled ale or cider.

The traditional ceremony of wassailing involves singing and drinking the health of apple trees in the hope that they give a good harvest the following year. The refrain from one wassailing song asks for what we all wish for at this time of year, love, joy, health and happiness: Love and joy come to you, and to you your wassail too; and God bless you and send you a Happy New Year.

By Richard Knowles

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