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Carrots and Evergreens and Winter Celebrations

By Sharon on December 27, 2011
No doubt wreaths and garlands of red and green are decorating your homes this week. I've been thinking quite seriously of making a carrot wreath for my front door. After all, it's carrots that played an important role in my winter celebrations; isn't that how traditions start?

Winter celebrations all started with carrots; or perhaps it just seemed that way to me.  My birthday was in November and it always snowed.  I built a snowman who wore a carrot for his nose. Thanksgiving came along and it snowed. I built another snowman; another carrot. Then along came Christmas and it snowed more. I built a snow family and used carrots for all their noses.  Same with the New Year and sometimes the same thing happened for Valentine’s Day.  With St. Patrick’s Day, it was time for shamrocks and for me, no more carrots (unless, of course, it snowed).  When I was little I simply knew that carrots started the plant parade; they colored every snowy winter celebration with dots of orange.  It was a fact of my life.

“I’m building a snowman and I need carrots!” I’d yell, no doubt covered in snow, from just outside the kitchen door.  As if by magic a hand holding a couple of carrots would appear, one for me to nibble and one for the snowman’s nose. Seems we always had carrots even in the dead of winter.

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Of course other plants entered the celebration scene, too. There were evergreen trees, mostly cedar, with their little brown pinecones, holly with its berries; Christmas cactus blooms and bright red poinsettias adding more color. Pumpkin pies, apple pies, sweet potatoes, and blackberry jam cake covered our tables. For Valentine’s Day we had roses and finally it was time for shamrocks.  But for me, carrots started the winter plant parade and continued to play a big part until the snow ceased to fall. I munched on those crunchy carrots all winter long.

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One year I asked Aunt Bett why Christmas colors were only red and green. I wanted to add orange carrots to my decorations. Aunt Bett told me that a long time ago, long before we celebrated the birth of the Christ Child, people celebrated winter solstice.  They were overjoyed knowing the days would be longer; they hung their stored red apples all over the only green trees of winter, the evergreens. The apples were to bring birds and wildlife back to their land.

I thought that was such a pretty story, I didn’t argue about Christmas colors anymore. The birds and animals could always feast on the noses of all my snowmen if they were hungry.

Little ones, big ones, it doesn’t matter; we all love celebrations.  The experts tell us the word celebration means the action of marking one’s pleasure at an important event or occasion by engaging in enjoyable, typically social activity.  Sometimes we celebrate without ‘typically social activity’.  Often just waking to a day of sunshine, with no aches and pains, no creaking joints, no new wrinkles, no pressing schedules, no heavy thinking is cause for celebration. But that speaks more of private celebrations, those little events that make us smile and glad to be alive.

As a community, we gather together to celebrate occasions that affect all of us with ceremonies of respect, festivity, or rejoicing, particularly during the months of winter.  We often look for any reason to celebrate. Winter celebrations are most important because they get us through long, dark and dreary days.  Plants are a part of our celebrations.

Let’s take a look back in time.  Ancient cultures around the world have celebrated the winter solstice as a sacred, festive time.  Long ago the “mighty oak” was the most sacred tree of Europe. It symbolized endurance, strength, protection, and good luck to people in the coming year. During winter solstice, people would set a giant oak log on fire in a community fire pit, or families would place a smaller oak log in their fireplace. This oak log became known as the “Yule log.”

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Holly, ivy, mistletoe, and evergreens have also long been a crucial part of these celebrations.  We make garlands from evergreens and hang them like chains in our homes in celebration of important cultural and religious events, particularly for Christmas.  They were also hung in homes in ancient times during winter. Recorded history tells us that they were used in Europe hundreds of years ago.  Those celebrations paid respect to the old world belief that evergreens were a source of strength, health and vitality during Northern Europe’s cold winters.  Anything that could remain green in the face of icy winds and very low temperatures had to be strong.   Even the Druids believed holly’s evergreen nature made it sacred and that it remained green throughout winter in order to keep the earth beautiful at a time when deciduous trees shed their leaves and days were colored by shades of gray and gloom.

Other pre-Christian cultures of Northern Europe and England paid tribute and respect to the evergreen for its ability to thrive during winter’s adversity. When Christianity was first introduced to that part of the world, missionaries incorporated many local beliefs into religious teachings to convert more cultures more easily to their way of thinking.   A garland made from evergreens continued then to be an important traditional decoration to hang in the Christian home when celebrating the winter holidays. It was a way to combine the old culture with the new, thus making the new more easily acceptable.

A Croatian Christmas and into the New Year celebration involved a tree, lights and colored thread or tinsel. In addition, fruits, nuts, heart-shaped cookies and other sweets typically adorned the evergreens in this Eastern European country.

Near the other end of the globe, in Finland, Christmas Eve festivities include singing traditional carols and enjoying a large holiday meal. In rural areas, no one eats until the birds have finished with the feeder filled with grain, nuts and seeds. I'm unclear about the reason, maybe because it’s bad luck, or maybe because it’s simply impolite, but most important, because it’s the tradition of a culture.

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Kwanzaa is an African-American cultural holiday that originated in December 1966.  It’s a week long celebration held in the United States honoring universal African-American heritage and culture, observed from December 26 to January 1 each year. It features activities such as lighting a candle holder with seven candles and culminates in a feast and gift giving. It was created by Maulana Karenga and was first celebrated in 1966–1967. Fresh fruits that represent African idealism play a big role in the celebrations.

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December celebrations are rarely consistent from culture to culture, faith to faith, or country to country and part of the magic of the season is enjoying the diversity it brings with it and the glimpse it provides into other ways of life. Most often, the commonality is the use of plants as a part of the celebration.

New Year's Day, January 1, is the first day of the year in the Gregorian calendar. We celebrate.  Commonly served in the southern part of the United States, black-eyed peas are thought to bring luck and prosperity for the new year; I ate so many black eyed peas I thought I might turn into one. Included also were greens (usually collards) to bring wealth.  Other cultures and countries celebrate with other plants.

So now we have the oak, holly, ivy, fruit, black eyed peas, collard greens and evergreens adorning the earliest winter holidays. All of them have followed us from ancient times and remain with us today. (Of course I realize none of those cultures mentioned my carrot.)

By February perhaps the world grew tired of so little color and as befitting St. Valentine, roses appeared. Red roses, of course, symbolize love to most of us.

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Saint Valentine's Day is an annual commemoration held on February 14th celebrating love and affection between companions. The day is named after one or more early Christian martyrs named Saint Valentine, and was established by Pope Gelasius I in 496 AD.

It is traditionally a day on which lovers express their love for each other by presenting flowers, most often, red roses.  If we think clearly about this, it makes little sense because not many of us have roses blooming in February.  We might have saved carrots in our root cellars, but whoever heard of saving fresh roses? The truth is, St. Valentine’s Day wasn’t always celebrated in February; at one time it was celebrated in April, so perhaps roses might have been blooming somewhere by then.

The phrase Roses are red echoes feelings traceable as far back as Edmund Spenser's epic The Faerie Queene (1590):

She bath'd with roses red, and violets blew,
And all the sweetest flowres, that in the forrest grew.

I guess it wouldn’t be too impressive to give one’s true love a bouquet of carrots.

By March, much of the world began to green again, just in time to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. It is a religious holiday celebrated internationally on March 17th. It commemorates Saint Patrick (c. AD 387–461), the most commonly recognised of the patron saints of Ireland; it also celebrates the arrival of Christianity in Ireland. It is observed by the Catholic Church, the Anglican Communion (especially the Church of Ireland), the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Lutheran Church. Saint Patrick's Day was made an official feast day in the early 17th century, and has gradually become a secular celebration of Irish culture in general. Shamrocks were worn in celebration of St Patrick's Day as early as the 17th century.  St. Patrick is said to have used the shamrock, a three-leaved plant, to explain the Holy Trinity to the pagan Irish.

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By April, trees and flowers begin to bloom, the days become longer and the long winter is behind us, all struggles forgotten. It doesn’t bring an end to our celebrations but it does conclude the winter plant parade.

It’s interesting to realize the role that plants play especially in our winter celebrations, the time when most plants are dormant. That tells us a lot about our culture. We are dependent on plants for food, for shelter, for health, for beauty and even for maintaining our cultural celebrations.  It’s fitting, of course, because we know that plants will spring forth with new life as soon as our winter is over; and so, my friends, do we.

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Even so, I think carrots should be given credit for playing such a big role in leading the winter plant parade.

~✭~

 If you are interested, here's a more complete list of winter celebrations, and another.


Images:  Rose, Zuzu; holly, gingin; used with permission.

Other images: first snowman, carrot wreath, oak leaf, fruit and shamrock are from Wikipedia Creative Commons.

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Comments and discussion:
Subject Thread Starter Last Reply Replies
Interesting article! Bubbles Jan 3, 2012 10:45 AM 65
LOVE the carrot "wreath" crittergarden Dec 30, 2011 1:35 PM 10

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