Traditional Aboriginal myth, which was printed in Web of Wyrd #10
Back in the Dreamtime, Gidja the Moon lived by the river with the
Bullanji people. They made fun of him, because he was round and fat,
with little stringy legs and arms. Gidja loved Yalma, the Evening Star,
but she laughed at him too. So Gidja made a magic circle of stones, and
at dusk every night, sat in his circle and sang of his love for Yalma.
He made so many songs! So, Yalma agreed to marry him and the Bullanji
people held corroboree for them. Now Yalma had a baby daughter - Lilga,
the Morning Star. Lilga would go hunting with her father, Gidja. One
day, while gathering honey, a limb fell off a tree and crushed Lilga, so
she died. This was the first time that anyone had ever died. Poor Gidja
mourned his daughter, but the Bullanji people were afraid, and blamed
Gidja for bringing death to the world. When Gidja carried his little
Morning Star in her coffin over the river, some men cut the ropes
holding the bridge, and he fell into the river. The coffin drifted out
to sea, and today, you can still see little Morning Star shining out at
sea. Gidja climed out of the river, and made a fire. He carried a
bright burning brand from the fire, and walked through the forest. The
people saw him and were afraid. The they saw it was Gidja, and were
angry. They tried to kill him, but couldn't, so they picked him up and
threw him up into the sky. As he rose up, he cursed the people, and said
they would all die, and remain dead. But he, and the grass, would die,
and would come back to new life. And so it is. Gidja grows fatter and
fatter, and then fades away like a little old man. Lilga though, shines
brightly. Just like he said, Gidja comes back to life. At dusk on the
third day after he dies, you can see him again, floating like a baby's
cradle, waiting to start again.
by Rick Hayward
Now that Christmas is fast approaching and the year has once
more come full circle, most of us will soon be busy adorning the
house with brightly coloured decorations, a Christmas tree and
all the other paraphernalia that goes to create a festive atmosphere.
Holly and mistletoe will almost certainly be included in our
decorations as evergreens have been used in the winter festivities
from very ancient times and definitely long before Christianity
appeared on the scene.
What Christians celebrate as the birthday of Christ is really
something that was superimposed on to a much earlier pagan
festival--that which celebrated the Winter Solstice or the time when
the Sun reaches its lowest point south and is reborn at the
beginning of a new cycle of seasons.
In Northern Europe and Scandinavia it was noted by the early
Christian scholar, Bede, that the heathens began the year on
December 25th which they called Mother's Night in honour of the
great Earth Mother. Their celebrations were held in order to
ensure fertility and abundance during the coming year, and these
included much feasting, burning of lamps, lighting of great fires (the
Yule fires) and exchanges of gifts.
The Romans, too, held their great celebrations--Saturnalia--
from December 17th to 25th and it was the latter date which they
honoured as the birthday of the Unconquered Sun. The Saturnalia
was characterised by much merry-making, sometimes going to
riotous extremes, with masters and slaves temporarily exchanging
roles. The use of evergreens to decorate the streets and houses
was also very much in evidence at this great winter festival.
That we now celebrate the birth of Christ at the same time is largely
due to the early Church Fathers who found it was much easier to
win converts to the faith by makng Christ's birthday coincide with an
already long established pagan festival. In fact, it wasn't until the
4th century that Pope Julius I finally established the 25th as the
official birthday of Christ; earlier Christians differed widely as to
this date-- some choosing September 29th, while others held that January
6th or March 29th were the correct dates.
As we have seen, the pagan element in Christmas lives on in the
festival at the Winter Solstice. But these elements are also very much
alive in our use of evergreens as decorations at this time of year.
Like most evergreens, the holly and mistletoe have long been held
to symbolise eternal life, regeneration and rebirth.
Holly, with its bright red berries and dark spiky foliage, has been
revered from ancient times as a symbol of life everlasting. It was
associated with strength and masculinity and was considered
useful in the treatment of various ailments which were seen to lower
the vital spirits.
In old England, a decoction of holly leaves was considered a cure
for worms; but most of all this prickly evergreen was looked upon
as a luck bringer--particularly in rural areas where a bunch of holly
hung in the cow shed or stable was thought to favour the animals if
placed there on Christmas Eve. Many people used to take a piece of
holly from the church decorations at Christmas as a charm against bad
luck in the coming year. Holly was also considered a very protective
tree which, if planted outside the house, was believed to avert
lightning, fire and the evil spells of witches.
An old holly spell describes how to know one's future spouse. At
midnight on a Friday, nine holly leaves must be plucked and tied
with nine knots in a three-cornered cloth. This is then placed under the
pillow and, provided silence is observed from the time of plucking
until dawn the next day, your future spouse will come to you in your
In certain areas of Wales, it was thought extremely unlucky to bring
holly into the house before December 24th and if you did so
there would be family quarrels and domestic upheavals. You would
also be inviting disaster if you burned green holly or squashed the
Turning now to mistletoe, it seems that this is by far the most
mystical of the plants associated with Christmas and has, from very
ancient times, been treated as magical or sacred. It is often
included in modern Christmas decorations simply for the fun of
kissing beneath it and, though this seems to be a peculiarly English
custom, it probably harks back to the mistletoe's association with
The real reason why mistletoe is now associated with Christmas is
very much a carry-over from ancient practices, when it was
considered as somehow belonging to the gods. The Roman historian,
Pliny, gives an early account of how the Druids would hold a very
solemn ceremony at the Winter Solstice when the mistletoe had to
be gathered, for the Druids looked upon this unusual plant, which has
no roots in the earth, as being of divine origin or produced by
lightning. Mistletoe which grew on the oak was considered especially
potent in magical virtues, for it was the oak that the Druids held as
sacred to the gods.
At the Winter Solstice, the Druids would lead a procession into
the forest and, on finding the sacred plant growing on an oak, the
chief priest, dressed all in white, would climb the tree and cut the
mistletoe with a knife or sickle made of gold. The mistletoe was
not allowed to touch the ground and was therefore caught in a white
On securing the sacred mistletoe, the Druids would then carry it to
their temple where it would be laid beneath the altar stone for three
days. Early on the fourth day, which would correspond to our
Christmas Day, it was taken out, chopped into pieces and handed
out among the worshippers. The berries were used by the priests to
heal various diseases.
Mistletoe was considered something of a universal panacea, as can
be gleaned from the ancient celtic word for it--uile, which literally
translated means 'all-healer'. A widespread belief was that
mistletoe could cure anything from headaches to epilepsy; and indeed
modern research has shown that the drug guipsine which is used in
the treatment of nervous illnesses and high blood pressure is con-
tained in mistletoe.
Until quite recently the rural folk of Sweden and Switzerland
believed that the mistletoe could only be picked at certain times and
in a special way if its full potency as healer and protector was to be
secured. The Sun must be in Sagittarius (close to the Winter
Solstice) and the Moon must be on the wane and, following ancient
practices, the mistletoe must not be just picked but shot or knocked
down and caught before reaching the ground.
Not only was mistletoe looked upon as a healer of all ills, but if
hung around the house was believed to protect the home
against fire and other hazards. As the mistletoe was supposed to have
been produced by lightning, it had the power to protect the home
against thunder bolts by a kind of sympathetic magic.
Of great importance, however, was the power of mistletoe to protect
against witchcraft and sorcery. This is evident in an old superstition
which holds that a sprig of mistletoe placed beneath the pillow will
avert nightmares (once considered to be the product of evil demons).
In the north of England, it used to be the practice of farmers to give
mistletoe to the first cow that calved after New Year's Day. This was
believed to ensure health to the stock and a good milk yield
throughout the year. Underlying this old belief is the fear of witches
or mischievous fairy folk who could play havoc with dairy produce, so
here mistletoe was used as a counter magic against such evil
influences. In Sweden, too, a bunch of this magical plant hung
from the living room ceiling or in the stable or cow-shed was thought
to render trolls powerless to work mischief.
With such a tremendous array of myth, magic and folklore associated with
it, reaching far back into the pagan past, it is understandable that
even today this favourite Christmas plant is forbidden in many
churches. Yet even the holly and the ivy, much celebrated in a popular
carol of that title, were once revered as sacred and magical by our
In view of what has been said, one could speculate that even if
Christianity had never emerged it is more than likely that we would
still be getting ready for the late-December festivities, putting up
decorations, including holly and mistletoe, in order to celebrate the
rebirth of the Sun, the great giver and sustainer of all earthly life.