The days are shorter, the temperature has dropped and the usual suspects seem to be making their way into every store front once again. Different shades of green, red and white have invaded every coffee table and display shelf in sight. I’m referring to, of course, the colorful cast of characters that are holiday houseplants! Holly hung, lining our doorframes and rafters. Mistletoe auspiciously placed for your loved ones to find and stand under. Small evergreens of numerous varieties fill the corners of homes across the nation, we went with a Douglas fir this year. Blue and white lilies sat next to the menorah. Regardless of how you celebrate the season, there’s more than likely going to be an influx of plant life entering your home this time of year. But have we ever stopped and asked ourselves, why? For a few it’s pretty obvious. Several plants bring with them a pop of color, others a pleasant scent. Some have historical precedent, while others are just plain decorative. People may purchase some plants for nostalgias sake, while others buy them simply because they saw them at a store and they looked nice. But what exactly brought these plants to such prominence? There’s got to be a bigger reason why they hold such a large market share in the holiday decoration realm.
Well, as with many things, there’s quite a lot of interesting (if not somewhat strange) historical precedent that establishes our current traditions. While much of the plant life we see this time of year could be directly connected to Christmas, sometimes by name ala the Christmas tree, but it seems these figures may not be as religiously significant as you might think. Decorating with evergreens, for example, is actually a tradition that predates modern Christianity. In fact, in some cultures, the idea of a Christmas tree is a rather secular symbol more indicative of the season and less the religious holiday. More often than not, the origin of these plants as decorations can be traced back to the fact that they don’t die in the winter as most other plants do. While modern derivations of these traditions date back thousands of years, some have not changed all that much from their original advent. So, in honor of the holiday season, I look to explore the history and modern traditions behind a number of the flora that are now integral in how we celebrate.
The idea of Christmas trees goes back further than the idea of a tree itself. Ancient people, as we still are today, were rather fascinated by the idea that some plants remained green all year round while others would die off once the cold weather set in. Due to this, past societies would put up boughs of evergreen plants on their doors and windows as both a means of decoration as well as a way to ward away bad spirits and illness. Many ancient societies, who often worshiped the sun, believed that the shorter days observed in winter were a result of their sun god getting sick. As the evergreen plants refused to die in the winter, they believed them to have special powers which could be used to heal both their gods as well as themselves. The Egyptians practiced this by decorating their homes with green palm rushes in hopes that their sun god Ra would make a speedy recovery. Early Romans had a similar celebration to mark the winter solstice in honor of their god of agriculture, Saturn, believing this would lead to a prosperous spring. Similarly, in Norse belief, evergreens were a favorite plant of their sun god, Baldur, they were thought to bring the home good fortune when used as decoration.
The modern, lighted, Christmas tree is widely believed to have been brought about by Martin Luther. Having observed the brilliance of stars sparking behind large evergreens on his walk home, he wished to convey this image to his family so he put a light candle in a tree he erected in his home. Being a, generally speaking, German tradition the Christmas tree was first observed in America in Pennsylvania German settlements. However, it was not a widely accepted practice in the United States as many religious fundamentalists saw it as a pagan symbol. It wasn’t until around 1846 when then Queen Victoria of England had married the German Prince Albert. The two appeared illustrated in a popular newspaper at the time, standing in front of a decorated Christmas tree. Being that Victoria was incredibly popular, what was done in court was quickly adopted by the British population and soon after, Americans as well. Come the 1890’s and decorated Christmas trees were a staple in homes across Europe and the US come December. The only difference being that Americans tended to want as tall a tree as possible because, of course we did. Fast forward to today and decorated Christmas trees are as common as the cold weather come December and while they may not all be exactly the same, some rendition of Christmas tree can be found in countries all over the world.
This interesting looking evergreen with bright red berries often found used as a wreath, also has a deep history predating Christmas. In ancient Rome, holly was thought to be considered sacred by their god Saturn. In Norse, Celtic and Druid societies holly was also considered sacred. In fact, in the aforementioned societies, cutting down a holly tree was thought to bring about bad luck. Though, pruning some branches was fair game. Once cut, these branches were brought into the home for multiple purposes. Most surprisingly, holly branches were utilized as rudimentary lightning rods. Modern science has actually looked into this and found that the distinct veins and spines in holly leaves do actually provide protection from lightning strikes, so clearly our ancestors were on to something. Holly branches were also thought to ward off bad witches while simultaneously encourage fairies to enter the home and bring good luck. While holly had some practical uses (others not so much), the decorative facet of holly branches was not lost on these ancient societies as it was also used to make the home seem bright and alive during the dark and cold winter. As with many things, holly was adopted into Christianity as it spread across Europe as an attempt to incorporate pagan symbols. This was done in most cases to attempt to bring more people into the emerging faith. Prior to the adoption of Christmas trees, wreaths of holly were hung from church doors as well as given out to parishioners as a means of decoration and bringer of good luck.
Much like the revered holly tree, mistletoe is a plant steeped with mythology. The Greeks and Romans used this herb for medicinal practices to cure anything from menstrual cramps to epilepsy, respectively. The Celtics held mistletoe in high regard due to its ability to blossom during the winter. They took this ability of the plant to signify vivacity and would keep it around as a way to boost fertility in both humans and animals. Similar to its previously discussed evergreen cousins, mistletoe, mostly gained steam in the in home décor market because it would retain life and color well into the winter months. However, mistletoe carries with it a rather different sense of tradition. Seen by many as innocent fun, the idea of kissing under mistletoe has two very different backstories, depending on who you ask.
In my opinion, the less creepy version stems from Norse mythology. One of Odin’s sons, Baldur, was prophesied to die. In an attempt to stop this from happening Baldur’s mother, Frigg, took to the natural world and made her case with all plants and animals to not harm Baldur. All plants and animals, except of course, mistletoe. Due to this oversight the trickster god, Loki, created an arrow made of mistletoe and saw to it that this weapon was used against Baldur. However, in the more pleasant version of the myth, the gods were able to resurrect Baldur. Overjoyed, Frigg decided to make mistletoe a symbol of love and vowed to plant a kiss on all those who walked under it. The other, less wholesome version (is killing your brother considered wholesome if your mom can bring you back to life? I’m not sure) dates back to 18th century England. It’s said the tradition caught on first with the servant class, as “men were allowed to steal a kiss from any woman caught standing under the mistletoe” given that “refusing was viewed as bad luck.”. Again, I’ll leave it to you to decide which backstory you want to go with as to why we kiss under mistletoe.
Often considered to be the “official flower of Christmas”, poinsettias are actually not flowers at all. The bright red pigment we see in these plants are just colorful leaves. According to a Mexican legend, the poinsettia was brought into Christmas lore when a small girl named Pepita gathered a bundle of weeds as an offering to the baby Jesus during a Christmas Eve service. With no money to buy a proper offering, the weeds Pepita gathered were said to have turned bright red when placed at the nativity scene. Thus establishing the poinsettia as a popular plant to have around during the holiday season.
Poinsettias were first introduced to the United States in the 1800's when Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first U.S. ambassador to Mexico, brought them back with him upon returning from a trip. Their holiday popularity, however, didn’t peak in the U.S. until about a century later. An entrepreneur by the name of Paul Ecke Jr. sent the colorful plants to various television studios around the nation during the holiday season. After having appeared on numerous talk show desks and holiday special sets, the poinsettia trend caught on. In fact, the plant became so popular that Congress declared the anniversary of Poinsett’s death, December 12th, to be National Poinsettia Day.