Farm Ireland

Thursday 22 February 2018

'The Green Man' and the spirit of Christmas

The Green Man
The Green Man
Joe Barry

Joe Barry

Like many adults, I tend to view Christmas time with mixed feelings. While I abhor the commercialisation of this holiday period and the pressure it puts on parents and others to spend lavishly on family and friends, I cannot forget the magic it brought to my own childhood.

Even better was the pleasure of seeing my love of Christmas in my youth re-enacted by my own children. Peace and Goodwill to all men. Isn't that a nice thought?

If only we could put it in to practice more often. As ever, we can only do our best and perhaps we should also reflect on the ancient traditions that are associated with the winter solstice throughout the Northern Hemisphere.

The feasts and celebrations that occur at this time go back many thousands of years and visual evidence of them can be found in Newgrange, Stonehenge and many others sites throughout the world.

One of my favourite mythological figures that keep reappearing throughout the centuries is the Green Man. His origins would appear to be pagan but we must remember that the sources of that word are Latin and referred originally to people who were rural dwellers and "of the countryside".

Such people clung to their old beliefs for far longer than urban dwellers and it is easy to see how a spirit of the natural world and trees would appeal to anyone living among woodland and pasture.

This has survived to the present day and I was delighted to see where Thomas Pakenham, in his recent book The Company of Trees commissioned a local craftsman to carve an image of the Green Man for siting on the trunk of an old tree in his woods at Tullynally.

I finally found one for myself recently in a shop selling reproductions of garden artifacts on the Dublin road outside Durrow. Rather than wood or stone, my Green Man is made of some form of composite but despite this, he looks wonderful and is now on a wall near my garden, smiling through the wreaths of foliage that surround his face.

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The Green Man can be found carved on to Christian churches throughout Europe with numerous images of him on Chartres cathedral and he is also depicted in the book of Kells. He is a symbol of our reliance on nature and of the renewed cycle of growth each spring.

In this respect, he may have evolved from older nature deities such as the Celtic Cernunnos, the Greek Pan and Dionysus. Father Christmas was also often shown wreathed in ivy in very early depictions where he was described as a similar woodland spirit.


We still bring holly and ivy and other greenery in to our houses during the time of the solstice.

Decorating our homes is an important part of the Christmas festival yet this ancient use of foliage was formerly believed to provide shelter for the woodland spirits and was central to our ancestor's relationship with Nature.

From what I have read, the Green Man encapsulates all that is good about the natural world and how its well-being is essential for our own survival.

During my research I came across the following: "His name means the Green One or Verdant One and his is the voice of inspiration.

"He can come as a white light or the gleam on a blade of grass, but more often as an inner mood. Some modern theologians have even drawn parallels between Jesus Christ and the Green Man, claiming that Jesus was, and is, the archetypal Green Man, drawn from the earth, born of the union of spirit and matter, bringing life to those he meets".

In these environmentally aware times, the Green Man can be seen as someone whose brief is to counsel us to take from the environment only what we need to survive and to conserve the rest while reminding us of our responsibilities for the stewardship of the natural world.

If anything gives us hope of renewal it is this simple foliate head that has been there in one form or another since the beginning.

The Green Man legend will probably always remain a mystery. Perhaps that is as it should be.

He is part of the myths, legends and wonders of Christmas time and another link to our fascinating past and the beliefs associated with the winter solstice.

Enjoy the festival and spare him a thought while decorating the house with greenery but forget the plastic Christmas tree. He wouldn't approve!

Indo Farming