Rockin’ around the Christmas tree, kissing under the mistletoe, decking the halls with boughs of holly, and decorating with red poinsettias are just a few common Christmas holiday traditions. But did you notice what they all have in common? They all involve the use of plants.
Throughout history and over the centuries, plants have played active roles in the spirit and celebration of Christmas.
Have you ever wondered how or why our favorite Christmas plants and decorations became associated with the holiday? Most of the traditions and practices we associate with Christmas today evolved or originated from many old legends of ancient times. Interestingly enough, none of these holiday plants has any biblical reference to the birth of Christ, but many have evolved from mythology, folklore, and pagan symbols. Over time, they were adopted as the religious or cultural significance of today. A look at history reveals that our customary American Christmas would not be the same without all these plants and the traditions that followed with them over the ages.
The Christmas tree is a tradition that can be traced back to Germany to where it began around the 17th century. Several legends exist to when it actually originated; some historians say possibly as early as 700 A.D., but most think it started in the 16th or 17th century.
The primitive cultures in northern Europe are said to have believed that evergreen trees had some type of godlike powers and made it a symbol of immortality. People would bring evergreen branches into their homes during the winter to help protect their homes and encourage the return of life to the snow-covered forest in the spring. It was also common for the Germanic peoples to decorate fir trees, inside and outside, with roses, apples, and colored paper.
As Christianity spread throughout Europe, the use of an evergreen tree became a symbol of Christianity.
Other historians believe that the Christmas tree may have begun in the 16th century with Martin Luther, the Protestant reformer. According to legend, Martin Luther was coming home one dark winters night during the Christmas holidays when he was inspired by the beauty of starlight shining through the branches of an evergreen tree. He then simulated this sight by cutting down a tree, bringing it indoors, and attaching lit candles to its branches. Martin Luther is usually credited with being the first person to put candles or lights on a Christmas tree.
The first record of a Christmas tree was in Strasburg, Germany, in 1604. In the 1800s, the tradition of a Christmas tree was quite common in Germany and around the 19th century soon spread to England. When the Hessian soldiers fought for the British in the American Revolution and Pennsylvania German immigrants came to America in the 1820s, they both naturally brought with them their traditions and customs, including the Christmas tree.
Traditions involving mistletoe date from ancient times to about 200 years before the birth of Christ. The Druids used mistletoe to celebrate the coming of winter and believed mistletoe could bestow health and good luck. They used this evergreen, parasitic plant to decorate their homes. They believed mistletoe had special healing power for everything from poison ingestion to female infertility.
Scandinavians thought mistletoe was a plant of peace and harmony and associated it with their goddess of love, Frigga. They also used it as a sign of love and friendship.
Welsh farmers thought mistletoe was a sign of good soil fertility, and an abundance of mistletoe meant a good crop the following season.
Mistletoe is best known today for its superstitious and romantic role. Kissing under the mistletoe was once thought of as an increased possibility of marriage. Not kissing an unmarried woman under the mistletoe meant the woman would remain single for another year. The romantic custom of kissing under the mistletoe may have gained traction in England in the 18th century when it became popularized as a Christmas decoration. Men were allowed to steal a kiss from any woman standing under the hanging mistletoe. The custom was if one refused the kiss, it would bring bad luck.
Ancient Romans considered holly to be sacred. They used it to honor Saturn, their god of agriculture, during the Saturnalia festival held during the winter solstice.
The Romans gave wreaths made of holly, carried it in processions, and decked images of Saturn with it. During the early years of Christianity in Rome, many Christians decked their homes with holly to avoid detection and persecution by the Roman authorities.
As Christianity grew in popularity and became the dominant religion of the Roman Empire, holly was adopted as a symbol of Christmas.
In the Middle Ages, the early church banned the use of mistletoe due to its idolatrous associations and pagan origins. Holly was suggested and substituted for all Christmas greenery and decorations. It too is evergreen, often with red berries. The sharp, pointed leaves of holly were believed to be a symbol of the thorns in Christ’s crown and its red berries as the drops of His blood. Maybe it was its natural color pattern of green and red that made it so famous as a Christmas decoration.
Holly remains a popular Christmas plant used for wreaths, greenery, and centerpieces adorned with candles.
Poinsettias, the most popular Christmas potted plants, are native to Mexico. The Aztec Indians cultivated them and used their colorful bracts to make a reddish dye. They also used the poinsettia’s milky sap as a fever medicine.
After the Spanish conquest and the introduction of Christianity, poinsettias were used in Christian rituals and nativity processions. In the 18th century, Mexicans believed the plants were symbolic of the Star of Bethlehem, thus becoming associated with the Christmas holidays.
Poinsettias got their name from the first U.S. ambassador to Mexico, Joel Robert Poinsett, who brought and sent the plants to South Carolina in 1828. He gave many to horticultural friends and botanical gardens.
The Ecke family of California has been instrumental in the development of today’s poinsettia. See the 2019 edition of Lake Martin Living for a featured article on Poinsettias.
Another colorful potted plant enjoyed during the Christmas season is the holiday cacti. Holiday cacti, which are native to Brazil, are popular fall and winter flowering houseplants. Their variety of flower colors-red, rose, purple, lavender, peach, orange, cream, and white–makes them quite intriguing, even as a decoration.
Technically, there are Christmas cacti and Thanksgiving cacti, two separate species, but most folks rarely know the difference.
As their names state, one often blooms around Thanksgiving, and one blooms later around Christmas; however, light availability and conditions can really factor in when the plants bloom. To determine if it is a Thanksgiving cactus or a Christmas cactus, look at the shape of the flattened leaves, which are actually stems. On the Thanksgiving cactus, the stem segments have two to four toothed points along the margins. On a Christmas cactus, the stem margins are more rounded.
According to U-Mass Extension Service, most commercial cultivars of holiday cacti sold are Thanksgiving cacti. Modern breeding of new cultivars and mass marketing of holiday cacti names only adds to the confusion. This plant has no historical or religious ties to the Christmas event except its bloom time coinciding with the holidays. Regardless, it is another beautiful plant to be joyful about this Christmas season.
Shane Harris is the County Extension Coordinator for Tallapoosa County.