It is sobering to delve into the medley of ancient folklore and superstition associated with Yuletide the irrepressible magic of holly and ivy, mistletoe, robins, the Yule log, carols and wassailing the apple trees.
How enthralling, too, though in quite a different way, are the simple Christian legends of flowers, animals and birds woven around Christmas. Medieval pictures of the Nativity are wreathed in flowers and the rose and the lily are, as we all know, specially dedicated to the Virgin:
Lady, flour of one thing, Rosa sine sputa, That barest Jhesu, Hevyn King, Gracia divina.
But some of the most enchanting legends are those concerning the common wildflowers of the countryside, for the monks of the Middle Ages had St. Francis's love for "the coloured flowers and herbs", immortalised in the pages of their beautiful Books of Hours.
It is not surprising that they and the wandering friars gave symbolic Christian names to the plants which had before been dedicated to pagan gods and goddesses; and many plant names which we now prefix with "Lady's" were originally "Our Lady s".
Who, I wonder, first created the legend that the white flowers of Lady's Bedstraw, a soft couch in the cave at Bethlehem, were miraculously changed at Jesus' birth into tiny golden puffs — while the bracken which was tangled with it remained hard and spiky and has never been blessed with blossom!
There are Lady's Fingers for 'kidney vetch; Lady's Slipper for bird's foot trefoil and a very rare orchid; Lady's Nightcap, the tiny and almond-scented pinkand-white field bindweed — and Lady's Thimble, the harebell, blue as the traditional colour of the Virgin's cloak.
Not even the thistle was forgotten: Our Lady's Thistle or Milk Thistle (Silybant Marianum) had leaves "of a
light green and speckled with white and milkie spots and lines drawn . divers waies'', wrote John Gerard in his Herbal of 1597.
Cuckoo flower was given the name Lady's Smock, "all silverwhite", one of the relics found by St. Helena in the cave at Bethlehem together with the swaddling clothes. "Alle these thyngys," said the 14th century German monk, "oure lady had forgete behynde her when she gede mite of that place in to Egipt." Linked with the Flight into Egypt was rosemary rosemary for ever blessed with blue-grey blossoms because over it were flung Our Lord's baby clothes "to dry in the sweet of the morning."
It also gave protection to the Holy Family as it was thick and bushy, passing "not commonly jn highte the highte of Criste while he was man in Erthe" but 'growing "only broader." A field of flax, too, blue and shimmering, provided a refuge from Herod.
-; One 01 the most beautiful flower legends is that of the /Christmas Rose (helleborus niger). A poor little shepherd girl who used to visit the stable to peep at the Holy Child was so unhappy when she realised that she had nothing to give him, that she burst into tears. Where' her tears fell, flowers sprang to life and she was able to gather a posy as her humble offering which, touched by the little hands of the Child, were transformed into white roses tinged with pink — the first Christmas roses.
Perhaps of all the Christmas legends the most famous (and I like to think it has a basis of fact) is the Holy Thorn of Glastonbury, which is said to have grown from a staff brought to Britain by Joseph of Arimathea; and which on Old Christmas Day, January 5, "even at the very hour when Christ was born, will spring and burgeon and bear blossoms."
Animals were very much a part of peasant life in the Mid
dle Ages and there are many legends featuring animals and birds and even insects. There was a tradition that at midnight on Christmas Eve the animals knelt down in worship of the new-born King.
The robin (firebird of pagan myth) is said to have red breast from fanning the embers of the fire in the cave.
During the Flight into Egypt the little quail of the deserts tried to betray the Holy Family to the spies of Herod with its "quie-is-ic".
But a pied wagtail heard the call, arrived swiftly in dipping flight and with its long tail swished the sand over the footsteps of St. Joseph and the Jonkey. (The he donkey, incidentally, is marked with a cross on its back, in memory of that flight.) There is a Gaelic legend about another black-and-white bird, the oyster-catcher or seapie. He was the "faithful lad" of St. Bride, who was carried by angels to Bethlehem. Rocking the Christ Child, she forgot her bird and for ever he runs over the sea-tangle of the shore, calling for her with his lonely piping.
But as the servant of St. Bride of the Isles, the Foster Mother, he "keeps a warm eye on little children" — so is, maybe, even more of a Christmas bird than our popular robin.