A naturalist's history of Christmas

A Naturalist’s History of Christmas

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Have you ever wondered how robins and reindeer, partridges and pine trees became so linked to Christmas? Well, wonder no more! To celebrate the festive season, here are a few explanations for how some of our more wildlife-related traditions began in my naturalist’s history of Christmas.

Reindeer

The first mention of reindeer in connection with Christmas came in 1821 with a children’s story written by William Gilley. Things really took off a couple of years later with the publication of Clement C Moore’s poem ‘A Visit from St Nicholas’, better known as ‘The Night Before Christmas’. The poem introduced Santa’s reindeer by name: Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner and Blitzen. Rudolph, however, wasn’t created until 1939 when a department store in the US published a story about the red-nosed reindeer as a marketing ploy. Until Christmas started to become as much a secular festival as a religious one in the 19th century, the fact that it fell in the Northern Hemisphere’s winter was largely irrelevant and religious iconography dominated. Once it became less strictly religious, snowy, wintry scenes began to come to the fore hence the increasing reference to reindeer and, later, the North Pole.

Reindeer
Reindeer only became associated with Christmas in the 1800s

Reindeer (and caribou; essentially the North American name for the same animal) are extremely hardy members of the deer family. Specially adapted feet allow them to walk on snow with ease. They also have another interesting adaptation. A tendon in their ankles rubs on the bone to produce an audible clicking sound. Some scientists think that this helps members of the herd keep track of each other in low visibility situations such as the long, northern winter nights and snowstorms. In Europe, most reindeer herds are domesticated, with a few free-ranging herds in southern Norway. A smaller subspecies (or full species according to some) lives in Svalbard. North American animals, meanwhile, undertake huge seasonal migrations between their summer and winter grounds.

Robins

The robin’s main connection to Christmas is also a relatively recent one. In Victorian Britain, postmen wore red tunics and so had the nickname ‘robin redbreasts’. People often sent seasonal letters to each other at this time of year, which meant postmen were already an important feature of Christmas. Once Christmas cards grew in popularity in the second half of the 19th century, though, the link became even stronger. Inevitably, images of the bird came to stand in for their human namesakes on these cards and then other decorations. An older fable links the robin to the Christmas story itself. This story begins with a plain, brown bird coming into the stable to fan a dying fire and keep the baby Jesus warm. As the fire grew hotter, it scorched the bird’s breast, producing the redbreast we see on the robin today.

Robin
Unusually, robins sing for most of the year

Robins are one of our most familiar birds, one most people can recognise and name. It has even twice been voted our unofficial national bird. In the UK, they are often very confiding and keen gardeners are used to them following them to pick at invertebrates in the earth as they work. In their original woodland homes, robins would have followed large mammals like pigs as they rooted up food. Now they have learnt to do the same thing to us. On mainland Europe, they are much shyer due to the widespread hunting of songbirds. Robins are unusual in that they maintain territories and therefore sing almost all year round. Other songbirds tend to only hold a territory during the breeding season. The robin’s melancholy winter song, coupled with the arrival of thousands of wintering birds from continental Europe, make it particularly noticeable at this time of year.

Christmas Trees

Everyone knows that Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, introduced the Christmas tree to Britain. Actually, while he was certainly responsible for its rise in popularity, George III’s wife Charlotte was probably the first royal to put one up here. On the Continent, German Protestants began the tradition of installing a tree inside as part of Christmas a few centuries before we adopted the fashion. But trees have been widely used in a variety of celebratory contexts for millennia. Evergreen trees were important in pagan belief systems because they symbolised everlasting life and rebirth. As Christianity grew in popularity, it co-opted many of these older practices. Evergreen trees were just one of many symbols that became incorporated into Christian celebrations.

Christmas trees
Large or small, Christmas trees are popular decorations

Norway spruces are one of the most popular choices when it comes to Christmas trees. This is because they often have that classic triangular Christmas tree shape. They were almost certainly once native to the UK until the last ice age. They were first reintroduced in the 1500s. Now they are common forestry trees, with many planted here in the 19th century. It is popular in the building trade as the wood is strong and straight and the trees are fast-growing. The paper-making industry also uses it. The cones are long with diamond-shaped, overlapping scales. Unlike fir trees, spruce cones hang down.  

Holly and Ivy

The beautiful carol ‘The Holly and the Ivy’ dates from around 1800. The two plants have much older links to this time of year, however. Due to their evergreen nature they were, like spruces and firs, revered in pre-Christian cultures for representing eternal life and rebirth. Both would have featured in winter solstice celebrations as people marked the turning of the year and the hopes for spring. Pagan cultures also used both to ward off evil, hanging branches over doors and in houses. In addition, the Romans used holly in their December Saturnalia festival due to its identification with the god Saturn. They are another example of Christianity absorbing older traditions. Holly in particular has taken on Christian symbolism. Its prickles represent Jesus’ crown of thorns and the berries his blood. As both keep their leaves throughout the year, they would also have been easy to find and then use as decorations.

Holly a naturalist's history of christmas
Holly was important in many pagan celebrations

Holly is instantly recognisable with its dark green leathery leaves and red berries. Although we tend to always think of them as prickly, leaves higher up a tree often have no spikes at all and can be smooth and oval. Scientists have found that this is due to an amazing reaction to browsing pressure by herbivores like deer. Where the leaves are in reach of the animals, the tree produces prickles, whereas above the browse line, they can save energy and just produce smooth leaves. Both holly and ivy are important for wildlife. Because ivy flowers later than many other plants, it provides food for pollinators late into the year. The berries then appear in early spring, just when all other food sources are used up. Ivy leaves also change shape but with age, not due to browsing pressure. Young leaves are lobed, while older ones are more oval. Because both plants keep their leaves all year, they also provide valuable refuges for roosting and hibernating birds and insects throughout the winter. They are two of our commonest hedgerow plants.

Common ivy
Ivy is an important plant for wildlife of all kinds

Mistletoe

You may be detecting something of a theme here, but mistletoe is yet another plant that pagan cultures prized for its evergreen properties. According to Roman historian Pliny the Elder, druids in what is now France cut mistletoe from oak trees using golden sickles as part of a sacrificial ceremony. Later historians have argued that druids across the Celtic world practiced similar rites, especially at the winter solstice. No one is sure how the Christmas kissing tradition began. Perhaps it is due to its connection to the Norse goddess of love, Frigg, or its long-standing links to fertility. Certainly by the 18th century it was popular amongst servants, and it later spread to the gentry. Most versions involve holding up a sprig to kiss someone under it. In other traditions, the sprig holder took a kiss for each berry they plucked off.

Mistletoe a naturalist's history of Christmas
Mistletoe has instantly recognisable leaves and berries

European mistletoe is a hemi-parasitic plant. This means that although it gets water and many of its nutrients from its host, it is also able to photosynthesise for additional energy. It forms in distinctive clumps on broad-leaved trees, particularly liking oak and apple. As an evergreen plant, it is especially noticeable when its deciduous host has lost its leaves. The pairs of propeller-shaped leaves and white berries make it easy to identify. Berry-eating birds spread it through their droppings and when they wipe their sticky beaks on branches after eating. The berries are toxic to humans, but many birds love them, especially members of the thrush family such as redwings and blackbirds. The mistle thrush likes them so much it is even named for them!

Mistletoe naturalist's history of christmas
Mistletoe forms distinctive clumps on its host trees

The Twelve Days of Christmas

The ‘Twelve Days of Christmas’ is one of our best-known carols. It probably began as some sort of cumulative memory game for children, but its exact origins aren’t entirely clear. It was first put into print in the 18th century. Different versions existed both over time and place, with different creatures or people at various points of the song. Some versions include running hares, roaring bulls or bleating lambs. Both wild and domestic birds have always featured, though. The fourth gift is now usually referred to as ‘calling’ birds, but it was often rendered as ‘colly’ birds in the past. Some scholars think this is an abbreviation of ‘coloured’ birds while others think it is a dialect word for ‘black’. The meaning of each gift, if they were in fact chosen for a particular reason, has also been lost to time.

Grey partridge
Grey partridges were once common across rural Britain but no longer

Most versions start with a partridge as the first gift. Sometimes this is in a pear tree, sometimes it is in addition to one. Occasionally, it is in a juniper. Some critics suggest that as red-legged partridges, a native French bird, are much more likely to perch in trees than our native greys, the song comes from France. On the other hand, the pear tree in the song may come from a corruption of the French word for partridge, ‘perdrix’. Either way, grey partridges across Europe are in serious trouble, with a decline of over 90% over the last 40 years. It was once a common farmland bird. However, agricultural intensification has reduced the messy field margins it favours as well as insect prey. It is a subtly beautiful, if tubby, bird with a soft grey breast and chestnut face and barring on wings and tail.

Christmas Crackers

Many of our most enduring Christmas traditions have links to the natural world, largely due to their pagan roots. At this time of year, pre-Christian people in the Northern Hemisphere celebrated the winter solstice and the slow turn of the year towards spring. As a result, evergreen plants signalling rebirth and eternal life were central to many of their ceremonies. Organised Christianity then incorporated many of these symbols into its own iconography. Some of our newer traditions also have natural links. These include the addition of robins and reindeer to our idea of Christmas. All this means that whether you celebrate Christmas or not, there are some cracking natural wonders to rejoice in at this time of year.

Further Reading

Edited by writer Melissa Harrison, this anthology was published in conjunction with the Wildlife Trusts. Including winter themed prose and poetry, some new, some from as long as seven hundred years ago, the book explores the natural wonders of the season.

Stephen Moss’ excellent series of bird biographies includes this one on the robin. As well as delving into the bird’s life month by month, Moss explores why the bird is so important to us culturally.

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