Milan, 12 December 2020

It’s that time of the year again! Time to drink nice hot toddies, time to put up the Christmas tree and other sundry decorations, time to set up the nativity, time to put on the CD of Christmas carols and sing along (in my case, somewhat off-key).

“The holly and the ivy,
When they are both full grown,
Of all the trees that are in the wood,
The holly bears the crown.”

Holly is a nice plant. With its lovely shiny green leaves and strongly red berries, it really does bring a brightness to our lives just when we most need it. I was struck by this most forcefully last December, when my wife and I were hiking through the woods around Lake Maggiore and Lake Como (a pleasure that is currently denied us by the latest round of Covid lockdowns). The trees were all bare and drear, the rustling underfoot as we trod over dead leaves reminding us of the lovely greenery that had covered them just a few months before. Suddenly, we spied a bright cheerful green among the trees. It was a holly tree.

My photo

Quite soon, a few more popped up between the bare trees.

my photo
My photo

No doubt we were traversing a zone where soil and climate conspired to give the holly a competitive advantage.

It was a pleasure to see holly in the wild. Before then, I’d only ever seen holly trees tamed and manicured to within an inch of their lives in a garden, a splash of dark green against the lighter green of lawn


Or used as a well-trained, well-trimmed hedge.


And of course I’d seen holly as part of the wreaths which people hang on their doors at Christmastime.


This connection between Christmas and holly is very old. When you strip away all the layers of religiosity that envelop Christmas, it’s really a feast about the winter solstice, a celebration of when the sun, which has been dying and allowing the days to get ever shorter and nature to die, is reborn, slowly making the days become longer and nature come alive again. In our festivities welcoming the rebirth of the sun, it made perfect sense for us to use plants like holly which are still green at the winter solstice, to remind the sun of the job it had to do to make everything else green again.

Thus we have the Romans decorating their homes with holly during their feast of Saturnalia, a winter solstice feast where there was a lot of gift-giving, feasting and merrymaking (a lot of other things happened during Saturnalia which need not detain us here, but any reader interested in Roman goings on can read about them here).


Funnily enough, when early Christians followed Roman practice and hung holly in their homes and churches, the pagans around them told them not to – I suppose they thought these bloody Christians were desecrating their festival. But at the same time the Church Fathers were also telling them not to, finding this ritual really too pagan for words. Luckily for us, the Christian-on-the- street ignored both the pesky pagans and kill-joy Church Fathers and continued to hang holly in their homes and houses of worship. Which in turn has allowed us to sing over the ages (in my case, somewhat off-key),

“Deck the halls with boughs of holly
Fa la la la la, la la la la
‘Tis the season to be jolly
Fa la la la la, la la la la”

Presumably, as the legions marched outwards from the Roman heartlands they took with them their Saturnalia festival. Holly (at least the species which grows around Rome) is present in just about all the European regions and some of the North African regions which the Romans conquered (the green crosses mean isolated populations, and the orange triangles indicate places where the holly was introduced and became naturalized).


So no doubt halls were also decked with holly in the Roman colonies of western Europe and North Africa. In fact, it is possible that our Christmas love affair with holly in Western Europe has its roots in the Romans’ Saturnalia festival.

Or perhaps not. Because holly was also a special plant for the Celtic tribes of Northern Europe: the map above shows that holly was very much present in their heartlands. They too decked their halls with holly, and for much the same reasons as the Romans: the plant’s evergreen leaves and bright red berries brought cheer to an otherwise dreary time of the year, and they were a reminder that greenery had not disappeared for ever, that it would soon be back, warmed by a re-born and newly vigorous sun.

The Celts saw holly as a symbol of fertility and eternal life, and imparted many magical powers to the plant. Hanging holly in homes was believed to bring good luck. During winter, branches of holly in the house would provide shelter from the cold for fairies, who in return would be kind to those who lived in the dwelling. In the same vein, holly was believed to guard people against evil spirits. So Druids wore holly garlands on their heads, as did chieftains. Holly trees were often planted around homes; because holly was believed to repel lightning this would protect homes from lightning strikes. Just as the oak tree was considered the ruler of summer, so the holly was seen as the ruler of winter, the dark time. As such, holly was associated with dreams and Druids would often invoke the energy of holly to assist them in their dream work and spiritual journeying. Here is one rather fanciful modern depiction of the magical powers of holly.


Holly is not the only evergreen plant which has been caught up in our Christmas celebrations. There’s the Christmas tree, of course.


“O Christmas tree, o Christmas tree
Thy leaves are so unchanging
Not only green when summer’s here
But also when it’s cold and drear”

The custom of using pine trees in Christmas celebrations started in modern-day Estonia and Latvia, by the way, during the Middle Ages and spread out from there. The trees were traditionally decorated with flowers made of colored paper, apples, wafers, tinsel and sweetmeats. I would say that the original idea was to remind us that trees would soon be a-fruiting again.

Then there’s the mistletoe.


“When I close my eyes
It’s just you and I
Here under the mistletoe
Magic fills the air
Standin’ over there
Santa hear my prayer
Hеre under the mistlеtoe”

Our wanting to steal a kiss under the mistletoe is a pale reflection of an ancient belief that mistletoe brought fecundity into a home – its white berries were considered to be the sperm of the oak tree.


Kissing under the mistletoe will never feel the same again now that I’ve read that.

I actually have a sense that just about any evergreen plant was made part of Christmas celebrations in some place and at some time – after all, if the point of having evergreen plants around was to remind us of the newly green world just around the corner, any evergreen plant should surely do the trick. I rather like a Christmas decoration that was once popular and summed up all the ideas around the use of evergreens in a celebration of the re-birth of the sun. This was the Kissing Bough. It was a popular Christmas decoration before the pine tree dethroned it and came to dominate our Christmases. To make one, five wooden hoops were tied together in the shape of a ball (four hoops vertical to form the ball and the fifth horizontal to go around the middle). The hoops were then covered with whatever evergreen plants were at hand: holly, ivy, rosemary, bay, fir or anything else (signifying the vegetation to come). An apple was hung inside the ball (signifying the fruits to come) and a candle was placed inside the ball at the bottom (signifying the re-birth of light). The Bough was finished by hanging a large bunch of mistletoe from the bottom of the ball (signifying the fecundity to come).


Coming back to holly, before we get carried away with all this magical imagery and mystical meanings (and let me tell you, the Internet is awash with reams of magico-mystico stuff on holly), let’s go back even beyond our Celtic and Roman forebears to a time when we were mere hunter-gatherers. Etymologists believe that the word “holly” has its origins in the Old English word hole(ġ)n. This is related to the Old Low Franconian word *hulis, and both are related to Old High German hulis, huls. These Germanic words appear to be related to words for holly in the Celtic languages, such as Welsh celyn, Breton kelen(n) and Irish cuileann. Probably all come from Proto-Indo-European root *kel- “to prick”.

What an eminently sensible lot, the hunter-gatherers were, to give this plant a name which stressed its prickliness! Yes, holly is nice to look at, but get close and you immediately notice something else: its leaves have very sharp spines.


This is not a tree to hide under or climb: something I learned as a child when I was once violently pushed into a holly hedge by another, very nasty, child. Ouch, it bloody hurt!


Milan, 19 April 2017

Some forty years ago, when my wife and I were just beginning our journey together through life, I came down to Milan to spend Easter with her. At her mother’s suggestion, we went to a late-night service in the nearby basilica of Sant’Ambrogio.

It was either on Good Friday night or Easter Saturday night (my memory is clouded on this detail). Either way, at the end of the ceremony we all trooped out into the church’s atrium.

There, the presiding bishop put a light to a nice big bonfire which had been laid down earlier, and intoned loudly several times “Christus Resurrexit!”, “Christ is Resurrected!”. Now, since the resurrection of Christ is the central tenet of Christianity – without it, there would be no Christianity – you would think that the bishop would have shouted out this message with joy and gladness, or at least with a mild level of satisfaction. Not a bit of it! The fellow intoned it so mournfully as to make you wonder if he was sorry that the resurrection had ever taken place at all. Or maybe he enjoyed Lent a lot, fasting and praying and beating his breast, and was sorry that it was all over for another year. Or perhaps his hemorrhoids were acting up. Whatever the reason, the three of us agreed afterwards that the Bish had been a douche-bag, resurrection-wise.

Ever since that ceremony long ago, it has been in the back of my mind to attend it again, if only to see if succeeding bishops were a bit more joyful about it all. But as the Italians say, fra il dire e il fare c’è di mezzo il mare, between the saying and the doing lies the sea (it sounds better in Italian, if only because it rhymes). This year I thought the time was finally ripe, but alas! either the ceremony was on Good Friday night, when we had just arrived back from Los Angeles and were in no fit state to take part in anything, or some boringly politically correct entity like the City of Milan Health & Safety Services had decided in the intervening years that open bonfires in church atria were a no-no. Whatever it was, the bottom line was that there was no ceremony on Easter Saturday.

My wife decreed that nevertheless we should at least step into Sant’Ambrogio on Easter Sunday – something to do with a sort of atavistic belief that this would be a good day and place to receive a dose of sympathetic magic – and I grouchily agreed. So some time in the afternoon of Easter Sunday we made our way to the church, weaving our way through the few Milanese left in the city who were going for their Sunday stroll. We walked through the atrium where there should have been the bonfire, and we entered the church.

Ahh! My nose was immediately greeted by the smell of incense which had been burned in earlier ceremonies, and I was transported back to my youth. I saw the boy that was me inhaling that fragrance, pungent but with sweet overtones, watching the smoke curling towards the ceiling, and generally enjoying one of the few bright spots during those weekly masses which I had to endure.

I also thought that swinging that thingy (which I later learned was called a thurible) from which all that thick smoke poured out was pretty cool.

In my teenage years, when I was finally considered responsible enough, I got to serve in High Masses as an altar boy and to swing the thurible (the idea being to pass air over the incense to keep it burning). Luckily, I never got into trouble as Edward Norton did in the film “Keeping the Faith”. Readers may remember the scene where as a young priest just starting out he gets to swing the thurible, which he does with such enthusiasm that he sets his robes alight and has to jump into the font of holy water to douse the flames.

A quick search of my favourite source of information – Wikipedia – informs me that the incense used in the Roman Catholic rites of my youth contains a varying mix of frankincense, myrrh, gum benjamin, copal, and a few other odds and ends.

Frankincense and myrrh …

“We three kings of Orient are;
Bearing gifts we traverse afar,
Field and fountain, moor and mountain,
Following yonder star.

Born a King on Bethlehem’s plain
Gold I bring to crown Him again,
King forever, ceasing never,
Over us all to reign.

Frankincense to offer have I;
Incense owns a Deity nigh;
Prayer and praising, voices raising,
Worshiping God on high.

Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume
Breathes a life of gathering gloom;
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,
Sealed in the stone cold tomb.

Glorious now behold Him arise;
King and God and sacrifice;
Alleluia!, Alleluia!,
Rings through the earth and skies.”
(I have cut the refrain)

That conjures up another image of my childhood, me in the school choir at primary school, doing the rounds of houses in the neighborhood, our choir master ringing the doorbell, and us launching into this and other Christmas carols when the occupants opened.

At the end of it all, we trooped over to the choir master’s house where his wife had prepared a buffet supper for us all, and where we got to taste just a little bit of the choir master’s home brew … Good times, those were.

Frankincense and myrrh …

The gifts, along with gold, that those three wise men with such mysterious names – Balthazar, Caspar, and Melchior – are proffering to the child Jesus in those countless paintings of the Adoration of the Magi produced in centuries past.

They are also players in the crèches which appear every year at Christmastime in Italian churches, ranging from the simple

to the very elaborate.

As young children we prepared one at home under the overall theological supervision of our mother – the latter meaning that we were allowed to place in the background other figurines in our possession, such as cowboys and Indians or various animals, but not in such quantities as to crowd out the essential Christian message. The three wise men on their camels were placed far away from the manger in which Baby Jesus lay, and then every day after Christmas we children brought them a little closer, to end up at the manger on 6 January, the Day of the Epiphany.

It all looked all so easy to us, but T.S. Eliot, in his poem The Journey of the Magi suggests otherwise.

‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
and running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

Frankincense and myrrh …

So desired throughout the Middle East and the broader Mediterranean world that its production centuries ago brought untold wealth to the Yemeni tribes which controlled the resin-bearing trees, allowing them to build cities like Shabwa, Marib, Baraqish.

They also brought untold riches to the tribes which controlled access to the incense route. This snaked its way up the western side of the Arabian peninsula, skirting the Empty Quarter and the Nafud desert, and culminating in Gaza. The wealth generated by the trade built cities like Avdat in the Negev

and helped build Petra in Jordan.

One day, if they stop hating and killing each other in this part of the world, my wife and I will go and visit the groves of frankincense trees.

And we will travel the incense route, preferably on a camel.


Sant’Ambrogio: http://www.itmap.it/milano/basilica-di-santambrogio/
Atrium of Sant’Ambrogio: http://muse-garret.cocolog-nifty.com/blog/2018/04/index.html
Incense smoke in church: https://www.pinterest.ph/pin/321233385899973661/
Swinging thurible: http://www.diariodejerez.es/semanasanta/Lunes-Santo-Jerez_3_575672440.html
Christmas carolling: https://www.gettyimages.de/video/choir?sort=mostpopular&offlinecontent=include&phrase=choir
Adoration of the Magi: http://en.artsdot.com/@@/8BWV5K-Rogier-Van-Der-Weyden-Adoration-of-the-Magi
Simple creche: https://ask.fm/matteotesselli99_
Elaborate creche: https://collinadeiciliegi.wordpress.com/2016/12/23/er-presepe/
Ruins of Baraqish: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baraqish
Ruins of Avdat: http://weekend.knack.be/lifestyle/reizen/israel-restaureert-antieke-stad-avdat/diaporama-normal-450517.html
Ruins of Petra: https://magdalatravel.com/detalles.php?id=82
Frankincense trees: http://holistictoolbox.co.nz/product/frankincense-boswellia-rivae-organic/
Camel riding: http://thesandysnowman.com/5-lessons-life-travel/


Beijing, 15 December 2012

Yesterday, we had the first heavy snowfall of the year in Beijing – there had been some earlier flurries, but no more than that. I don’t want to exaggerate; there wasn’t really a huge amount of snow, which was just as well because Beijing drivers have no idea how to drive in snow and their cars are not equipped for it. But for Beijing it was significant. As the snow began to pile up, people – and not just children – were out on the streets making snowmen and throwing snowballs, while some of the more responsible ones were clearing the pavements; I even saw a snowblower for the first time here!

children and snowman road cleaning

It was all quite picturesque, so I was moved to haul out our old CD “The Essential Carols Collection” which we always played at this time of the year when the children were with us, and gave it a whirl.

carols CD

Out floated those hoary old favourites, “Once in Royal David’s City”, “The Holly and the Ivy”, “Silent Night”, “O Come All Ye Faithful”, and on and on, while the odd tear or two formed in the corner of my eye.

But squeezed in between “O Tannenbaum” and “Ding Dong Merrily on High”, comes John Tavener’s “The Lamb”, an ethereally, achingly beautiful modern carol. Every time I get to this part of the CD, I have stop whatever I’m doing and sit down and just let the music flow through me. Tavener uses the words of William Blake’s The Lamb for the carol:

Little Lamb who made thee
Dost thou know who made thee
Gave thee life and bid thee feed.
By the stream and o’er the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing wooly bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice,
Making all the vales rejoice!
Little Lamb who made thee
Dost thou know who made thee

Little Lamb I’ll tell thee,
Little Lamb I’ll tell thee!
He is called by thy name,
For he calls himself a Lamb:
He is meek and he is mild,
He became a little child:
I a child and thou a lamb,
We are called by his name.
Little Lamb God bless thee.
Little Lamb God bless thee.

I always wanted my mother to hear this carol, she loved William Blake. But this will join that long list of regrets, things we wished we had done but left until it was to too late.


Children with snowman: https://usa.chinadaily.com.cn/

Man sweeping snow in street: https://usa.chinadaily.com.cn