Nature on our doorsteps: Plants of the Winter Solstice

By Rosaleen Dwyer

Rosaleen Dwyer is the County Heritage Officer at South Dublin County Council – every week she gives us an insight into the natural heritage around us and the beautiful biodiversity of the plants and creatures

Since mid-summer, the sun’s natural cycle has been steadily progressing towards the shortest day of the year. 

This year, this occurs on Monday 21st December, the day which has the shortest period of daylight and the longest stretch of darkness.

We still bring Holly indoors to bring colour to our mid winter

We still bring Holly indoors to bring colour to our homes in winter

This is the winter solstice and in ancient Celtic cultures, this day held great significance because it marked the new year.

After this day, the sun’s cycle would begin again. Daylight hours would increase, and spring would not be too far behind.

While mid-winter was a time of hardship and food shortages, the solstice was also a time of hope and celebration.

Communities gathered to celebrate the new year, looking to nature for colour and symbols to help get them through the rest of winter.

MIstletoes ability to grow on bare branches was a powerful fertility symbol 1

MIstletoe's ability to grow on bare branches was a powerful fertility symbol

Because Holly and Ivy remain green and growing throughout winter, these plants represented strength and resilience.

Holly’s red berries symbolized our life-giving blood, supporting our health in the depths of winter.

Mistletoe was also considered a spiritual plant by the ancient Druids.  It represented fertility, and it was particularly powerful when it grew on the mighty oaks in the Druids’ sacred groves.

Although the Christian feast of Christmas was superimposed on the ancient mid-winter celebration, we still turn to these plants for winter colour today, even if their symbolic meaning may have changed for us.

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