You may have already heard the story behind the poinsettia, but there are quite a few other plants we associate with Christmas. Have you ever stopped and wondered why the heck we chop down a whole tree, bring it inside, and cover it with glittery stuff? Or why we deck the halls with boughs of holly? Or why we kiss under a sprig mistletoe? (People still do that, right..?)
In honour of the holidays, let’s give the Mythbusters treatment to the stories behind these popular holiday plants.
The Christmas tree has been associated with the winter solstice far longer than it’s been a part of traditional Christmas celebrations. The earliest “Christmas trees” date back to ancient Egypt, in which people celebrated the solstice with palm rushes. The Roman empire used a similar tradition during the solstice, using evergreen boughs to decorate their homes in lieu of palms.
The earliest origin of Christmas trees as we know them now began in Germany during the 1600s. Many Germans of the day were devout Christians who celebrated the holiday by bringing trees into their homes, which they would decorate with candles. The story behind the tradition was said to have been started by the protestant reformer Martin Luther, who noticed the stars twinkling brightly through the evergreens on his walk home one winter evening. Wanting to recreate this sight, which he believed was a sacred message, he decorated a tree with candles to mimic the stars he’d seen.
The tradition spread through many regions of Europe, but over in North America, the Puritans were less than impressed, to say the least. For over a century, Christmas trees were actually a controversial statement that American Puritans dismissed as “pagan mockery” and a “heathen tradition”.
However, as it turns out, by the mid-1800s, Queen Victoria had a lot of clout in North America and anything the royal family did at Christmas was immediately in vogue. In 1846, the royal family was portrayed standing around a Christmas tree””an image that sent Americans into a frenzy. By 1890, North Americans were importing Christmas tree ornaments from Europe and going all-out with massive trees covered in elaborate homemade decorations. The rest, as they say, is history.
There are a few very different myths associated with holly. The first one originates from Druid tradition. The Druids believed holly was a symbol of fertility and eternal life, and decorating one’s house with holly would bring good fortune. Early Christians were thought to have adopted the Druid tradition, then integrating the colorful evergreens into their holiday celebrations.
The other myth is hardly about Christmas at all, but it does relate to the story of Jesus’ life. Some Christians believe holly, with its red berries and thorny foliage, is symbolic of the crown of thorns worn by Jesus during his crucifixion. The berries are thought to represent drops of blood. The presence of holly at Christmas, therefore, brings the life of Jesus full-circle, which in some devout circles is very meaningful.
Mistletoe is yet another traditional plant borrowed from the Druids, however, the true origins are difficult to trace. Druids saw mistletoe as a magical plant and a symbol of fertility, hanging sprigs of the leaves and berries above their doors to grant them good fortune. Since many Druid traditions ended up getting borrowed by early Christians, mistletoe eventually ended up in the mix.
However, the mistletoe tradition rose to notoriety as it became more scandalous. In England, it became customary to pluck a berry off a hanging bough of mistletoe before kissing the lady in your company. When the berries were all plucked from the mistletoe, the kissing had to stop. This “game” was so titillating to young English folks at the time, the Christmas tradition has stuck around ever since.
With so many interpretations of Christmas, it’s interesting to trace how traditions from cultures around the world have come to be associated with the Westernized version of the Christmas story. I still can’t believe that an Egyptian solstice tradition managed to evolve into our decked-out Christmas trees in Edmonton!
Whether you celebrate with these traditional plants, or whether you even celebrate Christmas at all, I wish you and yours a happy holiday from our team at Salisbury Greenhouse.