Plants Make It Christmas

Who would want to celebrate Christmas without the traditional evergreens, holly and mistletoe or the lovely poinsettias and Christmas roses? Without these plants and many others, the season would be stripped of its many gay and pleasant associations.

Although historians disagree, tradition places Jesus’ birth during the Saturnalia, one of the ancient celebrations which closely corresponded with our observance of Christmas. Branches of holly festooning the doorways were a signal for the spontaneous “Io Saturnalia” which carried a spirit of good will similar to our own “Merry Christmas.”

After the death of Christ, the early Christians were forbidden by the fathers of the church to take part in festivities honoring a heathen god. Forbidding, however, was one thing, and enforcing another. A doorway bare of the traditional holly brought the wrath of the Romans down on those within. Many people continued to decorate their doorways with holly even though they took no part in the holidays. Eventually the priests came to the conclusion that it was impossible to eliminate the decorations; hence the custom gradually became associated with the birth of Christ.

Historians were uncertain as to what the crown-of-thorns might have been. Some said it was a euphorbia; others claimed it was a rose or a berry bush. But weren’t the leaves of the holly armed with rather formidable prickles? And weren’t the berries as red as drops of blood? It could have been the crown-of-thorns.

Poinsettia Pink

Holly and Ivy

And so the holly became a holy plant, so firmly established as a symbol of Jesus that the early English were direly punished should they even speak disparagingly of it.

An early English carol features a duet between a man (Holly), ands woman (Ivy), another favorite Yuletide , decoration in that country. Since Holly was the more colorful and beloved by the birds, he was taken inside while Ivy must remain the outdoor decoration.

Having been the olden symbol of wine dealers and dedicated to Bacchus, the discoverer of wine, ivy had to undergo a still greater transformation than the holly to become acceptable in the sight of the church as a Christmas decoration. The custom had sprung up among those without means of obtaining more orthodox greenery to content themselves with festoons of the ivy which luxuriantly clothed the walls of old buildings everywhere. Churchmen finally decided it would be better to provide some legitimate reason for its use, rather than forbid it. Its all-embracing tendencies suggested the all-embracing love of the Savior, so ivy became a symbol of love, rather than winebibbing.

A Christmas Herb

Callum serum, a native plant of Palestine, is known as our lady’s bedstraw. Homey and popular flowers in the Old World had a way of acquiring a “love-name” associating them with the madonna. Some writers insist that bedstraw is a corruption of beadstraw. Early peasants used it for the purpose of saying their aves and pater nosters, because the regularly spaced whorls of leaves suggested a rosary.

Merry Christmas is its message

Many prefer, however, to cherish the Christmas legend of the manger in Bethlehem. Since galium grew abundantly even where it was not wanted, some of it found its way into the straw used for bedding in the stables. It was on this harsh though fragrant hay that the Christ Child lay.

Nicholas Poussin is said to have painted a Nativity showing the lifeless hay bursting into fresh bloom. Celestial rays streaming from the Holy Child turn the tiny white blossoms to purest gold. Old World worshippers often gather the fragrant, springy galium for stuffing pillows at Christmas.

Origin of the Christmas Tree

And what would Christmas without a brightly lighted tree be? The spirit of Christmas, personified by Santa Claus, La Befana or some other name can leave gifts in a shoe, stocking or even a pocket, but these things do not shout “Merry Christmas” to everyone who passes by.

Despite recurring legends that “tannenbaum” was originated by Martin Luther to entertain the children in his parish, historians place the use of a lighted tree in pagan festivals long before the birth of Jesus. Holy men in Germany gave the Festival of Lights a Christian meaning, just as the holly was sanctioned by the Roman priests. Immigrants carried the idea to other lands until, like the holly, the lighted tree has become synonymous with Christmas.

And, like the holly, small fir trees once were in danger of extinction from unwise cutting by careless, mercenary-minded peddlers. But no more. Both holly and Douglas firs have become good cash crops. The United States Department of Agriculture reports that in areas favorable to their growth, either may bring the farmer more money than pasturage on the same amount of ground.

A Poinsettia Legend

Another Christmas legend concerns another of our traditional plants, the flamboyant poinsettia. Instead of being associated with His birth, since it is an American, this euphorbia, with insignificant yellow flowers, took pity on Maria, the little Mexican girl. She was on her way to church on Christmas Eve when she realized that she had no gift to lay on the altar. Suddenly the bush beside the road became suffused with scarlet leaves about the flowers. Not only did it become a fitting offering for Maria to lay on the altar, but a pleasant jingle in the tills of florists throughout the land by our own wholehearted acceptance of it as a Christmas plant.

Mistletoe is one Christmas plant that never has received official sanction from the church, although it has been used as a decoration in the home for centuries. There is nothing about this half-parasite to catch the eye as in the case of the holly, Christmas rose, or the flaming poinsettia, yet, for centuries its white, waxy berries have captured the hearts of old and young alike.


No tree hung with precious jewels could have been more valuable to a landowner in days of old than a tree well-laden with mistletoe. So prosperous were the crops about such a tree that childless women begged for the privilege of sitting under it, believing that it promoted fertility.

Should a divining-rod-shaped branch be found of this child of the sun. its price was above rubies, for the sick were instantly healed as it was waved above their heads.

Because Norsemen dedicated it to Freyja, their goddess of love, maidens who failed to receive a kiss underneath a mistletoe-laden tree would not be married that year. Young men became wary of such maneuvers, so young Nordic maids became as resourceful as Mohammed, and brought the mistletoe indoors. Since a berry was picked off for each kiss, well-filled branches were in great demand. Rosemary entwined with the mistletoe was a double-indemnity insurance policy. Marriages which followed these kissing-bees were said to have been especially blest.

Even today, when kisses are no longer considered a pledge of betrothal, the custom of hanging a sprig of mistletoe in the doorway still persists. Some canny maids have even resorted to pinning a bit of it into their hair!

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