THIS is the time of year when we forage in the garden and in the churchyard (with the permission of the vicar) to find greenery to use in making the Christmas wreaths we sell here and at Helmsley market.

Our wreaths are made of a greenery base decorated with dried cones and berries. So we need to gather a goodly amount of fresh material to make all the wreaths we sell.

To help make this easier for us in future years our head gardener Lisa has planted several spruces and is thinking hard about what else might provide interesting and colourful decorations for us.

But it got me thinking about Christmas carols and The Holly and The Ivy, in particular. I’d not given it a great deal of thought before now, but writing this, I realised that until the 18th century Britain only had five native evergreen trees; holly, box, yew, juniper (essential for gin) and in Scotland the Scot’s pine.

Combine that with ivy and that stalwart of door frames everywhere, mistletoe and you have the complete set of British evergreens.

I think this is why our native evergreens are so important and have such a weight of myth, legend and symbolism attached to them. Yews are seen as a symbol of death and the journey from this world to the next. Frequently found in churchyards, they can be older than the church itself as they were seen to ward off evil and keep the dead and the living protected before Christianity. Churches were built over previous places of worship and yew continued its protective role.

Holly has also long been seen as protection from evil, and in deepest winter its green leaves and red berries symbolised rebirth and the return of spring.

Later, it was incorporated into Christian tradition where the sharp leaves represented the crown of thorns worn by Christ and the red berries, the blood He shed.

Ivy also has a lengthy history of use as a winter decoration, it was believed to have magical properties.

It symbolised eternal life, rebirth and the spring season. It was also seen as a symbol of marriage and friendship because it holds tight to whatever it is near. It was also associated with Dionysus the Greek god of wine and revelry which possibly made it less popular as a Christmas decoration in later times.

Capable of growing in deep shade, ivy came to be associated with secrecy and debauchery and only slowly regained its place as a Christmas decorative favourite.

Now we see evergreens as a lovely way of bringing colour and freshness into our homes at the darkest time of year.

That they have so much myth and symbolism attached to them says to me that they held great value to people then as now.

When it’s dark and bitter cold, having the colour and vibrancy of these plants in our homes lets us know that the seasons will turn and spring will come again.

Happy Christmas everyone.