‘Tis the season to don the warmest gear, brave the wintry elements and head out into the woods in search of greenery for holiday decorating. Decking the house with boughs of fir, pine, cedar or anything green can be an excellent way to overcome the doldrums that can set in as we head into winter.
The countdown to Dec. 21, the shortest day of the year and the winter solstice, can be excruciatingly painful for some. As the sun moves each day more southerly on the horizon, surrounding oneself with the beauty of nature can be an important reminder that delayed sunrises and premature sunsets are only temporary.
According to one source, Christians have observed decorating for the holidays and other Christmas festivals since the fourth century. Yet, customs such as the hanging of holly and mistletoe, the crafting of yule logs and wassail bowls had nonreligious roots. Some believe the custom of using an evergreen tree trimmed with lights and other decorations was a symbol of paradise or Eden; others believe the evergreen Christmas tree is a symbol of life in the dark of the winter solstice.
For whatever reason, the use of a Christmas tree probably began early in the 17th century in France, then spread through Germany and into northern Europe. In the mid-1800s, the Christmas tree custom was introduced to Great Britain; from there it accompanied immigrants across the Atlantic to the United States.
Holiday decorating today, whether religious or a celebration of the solstice, can be as simple as hanging a wreath on the front door, or as involved as time and will allow. If you’re searching for a simple, inexpensive, meaningful gift for someone special, consider gathering some extra greens and cones while in the woods this month and craft a yule log.
The original yule logs were whole logs. Entire families probably went out in search of their yule log, decorated it and later burned it ceremonially on the solstice or the first day of the new year. The log was so large, they probably had to put one end into the fire, and edged the rest of it into the fireplace as it burned.
A size as dramatic as the historic yule log really isn’t necessary today. Cut a log – a white or paper birch log is really quite beautiful – between 15 and 18 inches in length. If necessary, cut away a bit of the bottom of the log, giving it a flat edge so it easily rests on the table or in front of the hearth. Decorate the log by laying tips of evergreen branches along the top. Tie a raffia bow at the center and continue to decorate with thinly sliced oranges or apple slices dipped in lemon juice to prevent browning.
Add plain pine, spruce or hemlock cones. Or, for a fancier effect, paint the cones gold or silver. Look outside for seed pods or ferns and add these to your creation, either natural or painted. When you give the yule log as a gift, it’s easy to continue the centuries-old tradition of the symbolism by writing a note to those who will receive your gift.
Think about what each ingredient of the yule log might symbolize for them. Remind them that the yule log isn’t forever, it serves a function on the winter solstice and should be burned – decorations and all – as a symbol of the year’s shortest day. If they want to eke out another 10 days of enjoyment of the pretty log, suggest that they burn it on New Year’s Day in addition to their bayberry candle, and good fortune may be theirs in the new year to come.
Diana George Chapin is the NEWS garden columnist. Send horticulture questions to Gardening Questions, RR1, Box 2120, Montville 04941, or e-mail them to firstname.lastname@example.org. Selected questions will be answered in future columns. Include name, address and telephone number.