Mother's Garden: Celebrate the winter solstice

Ruth S. Foster

Today, as I shoveled ice in descending darkness at 4 p.m., I looked up towards the cold north spirits, those ice maidens who live in the castle on top of the slippery white mountain. Mythical maids of old childhood fairy tales yet not so far removed from today's Harry Potter and friends.

The winter solstice, around the 21st of December, is the shortest day of the year. It was a mystical time for early cultures for the earth was barren and the goddess of the harvest slept or maybe even died.

It happens just around Christmas and is a season when we all need comfort and hope.

In Biblical times people gathered evergreens on the winter solstice, this shortest day, believing evergreens were a symbol of life for they defied the barren goddess of darkness. Greeks and Druids, too. Ancient Romans decorated their homes with evergreens for the mid-December festival of Saturnalia, which mainly involved lots and lots of wine and partying.

The early Christians, to avoid persecution, did the same. Despite scorn from the early church, they turned it into their own holiday celebration, which has become our lovely Christmas.

The Hebrews have Hannukah, the Moslems begin their holy fasting month of Ramadan about the same mid-winter period. Also in Indian tradition, Rama, one of the incarnations of Vishnu, known as "The Preserver," comes to save mankind.

And thus did early pagan myths and superstitions evolve into our many, varied religious customs continuing the reassurance that indeed spring and the planting season will come again.

Evergreen holly was the plant most prized by German and British pagan tribes to ward off evil spirits and bad weather. Also used as a medicinal tea. Maidens kept it to protect their virginity.

Mistletoe, a parasitic weed of oak trees, was sacred to the Druids, whose white-frocked priests plucked it with a golden sickle. The poisonous berries were believed to cure illness, infertility and to pacify one's enemies. To kiss beneath it ended grievances, which somehow evolved into the romantic custom of today.

It is interesting that most herbal remedies, even today, are actually poisons. It is their bad side effects that are prescribed as cures.

Also consider how much we need the lovely lights of Christmas — for the winter solstice brings darkness.

In London or Berlin, they may have only two to four hours of sun even on the brightest days. It's dark here in the Boston area too, though at our latitude of 42 degrees, the day length is closer to Rome or Madrid.

Before electricity, nights were indeed long and dark. And cold. Though candles were expensive, illuminating the darkness was reassuring, and protective against the unknown irrational fears that were part of the primitive myths.

Lights were associated with the winter solstice in Hebrew bible stories when the Maccabees, in the 2nd Century B.C., miraculously kept the sacred flame lit for eight days while they freed their homeland. Hanukkah became a celebration of lights. The Catholic Advent Calendar suggests lighting a candle on the four Sundays in December before Christmas.

We are so lucky to have the glorious lights of this special holiday all around us, celebrating when Christ was born. Christmas lights give an aura of protection as they brighten up the dark of these long nights. They celebrate a joyous or religious holiday season. The winter solstice is a special time to share with friends and family to chase away winter's darkness while we wait for spring to come again.

Ruth S. Foster is a landscape consultant and arborist. More gardening information can be found on her Web site: