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The Holly and the Ivy

“Here's to holly and ivy hanging up, and to something wet in every cup.” ~Anonymous Toast

“Yule is when the dark half of the year relinquishes to the light half. Starting the next morning at sunrise, the sun climbs just a little higher and stays a little longer in the sky each day. Known as Solstice Night, or the longest night of the year, much celebration was to be had as the ancestors awaited the rebirth of the Oak King, the Sun King, the Giver of Life that warmed the frozen Earth and made her to bear forth from seeds protected through the fall and winter in her womb. Bonfires were lit in the fields, and crops and trees were ‘wassailed’ with toasts of spiced cider.” ~Yule Lore[i]

Have you ever puzzled over the lyrics to that old Christmas carol, “The Holly and the Ivy?” I’m fascinated by the origins of our holidays and traditions, and the Yule-Christmas season certainly provides fertile ground for a little digging!

I’ve mentioned the origins of Halloween[ii] and Thanksgiving[iii] celebrations in previous blogs. Like these holidays, celebrations around the time of the winter solstice predate Christianity and Christmas by many centuries. relates that “Ivy had close ties with the Roman god of wine, Bacchus. Holly, meanwhile, figured prominently in the Roman celebration of the Saturnalia (upon which the Christmas holiday was directly modeled), as it was considered sacred to Saturn. Among the Celts, holly played a major role in summer and winter solstice observances.”[iv]

But beyond ties to gods, religious festivals, and superstitions (such as leaving a sprig of holly near the front door year-round to invite good luck into the household), is there a biological reason for humans to crave greenery “in the bleak midwinter”—so much that in almost every cold clime we have brought cuttings of evergreen vines, bushes, and even whole trees indoors for millennia?

According to the famous Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson, [v] the answer is yes, and it even has a name:biophilia.[vi] Biophilia means “love of life,” and according to Wilson, it is not surprising that evolution has “hard-wired” us with a love of all things living, growing—and green.

Do you suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)? If so, it might not just be light you’re missing, but nature and greenery as well. Numerous studies have documented various physical and mental health benefits from regular contact with nature. Even a hospital room with a window view of a natural setting improves patient recovery after surgery.[vii]

But you don’t have to trim or kill living evergreens in order to bring foliage indoors during winter. Special light bulbs that mimic natural sunlight[viii] will keep your plants green even in windowless interior spaces. Terrariums of all shapes and sizes can help fussy exotic plants thrive far from their sunny tropical homes. Finally, green is not just for roofs[ix] or exterior walls; interior spaces are increasingly green, as ecological construction integrates living, growing plants into once-dead homes and offices.[x]

So bring a little green into your indoor life, even when you can’t get outdoors. You just might be healthier and happier for it.

“Biophilia, if it exists, and I believe it exists, is the innately emotional affiliation of human beings to other living organisms.” ~Edward O. Wilson

Kyle Crider is Manager – Environmental Operations at Ecotech Institute and Education Corporation of America. He holds a Master of Public Administration degree with a double-emphasis in Urban Planning & Policy Analysis. He is also a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Accredited Professional, Neighborhood Development (LEED AP ND). He is currently in the Interdisciplinary Engineering Ph.D. Program at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.