Take 5: The Curious History of Christmas Plants

It’s that time of year again where we don our holiday jumpers, eat mince pies for breakfast and fill our homes with festive foliage. But ever wondered why we go to all that effort to pick the perfect tree, hang the holly and make out under the mistletoe?

1. The Christmas Tree

If we think the needles that drop from real Christmas trees – also known as fir trees – cause a mess, imagine a millennia ago when people hung their trees upside down, to represent the Holy Trinity. At some point in time, they began to be placed upright so they pointed up to the heavens (we bet it was actually because they didn’t have a cordless Dyson to clean the mess up with). But before fir trees became kings of the Christmas tree world, other evergreen plants were considered special for ancient Egyptians and Romans as a symbol of fertility, particularly in winter. It was also believed bringing evergreens into the home kept evil spirits and illness away. Once fir trees had risen through the ranks of popularity, those efficient Germans developed the first artificial tree during the 19th century, made of goose feathers attached to tree branches, before the US began to use toilet brushes dyed green. Hence the artificial Christmas tree as we know it today began life somewhat down the pan.

2. Mistletoe

We’ve got the Norse goddess of beauty, love and marriage to thank for those awkward moments getting caught under the mistletoe with someone you’d rather not lock lips with. Norse myth tells of the story of Frigga and her son Baldur, who got killed by an arrow made of mistletoe. Frigga cried for days and placed mistletoe berries on her son’s corpse, which seems like an odd tribute given he died of a mistletoe shooting, but it did the job and brought him back to life. Frigga was of course delighted and promised anyone who stood beneath the mistletoe that they would get a kiss and be forever protected, and from then mistletoe became a symbol of love and peace.  Thanks Frigga for those cheek-reddening moments getting caught under the mistletoe with Dave from accounts at the office party.

3. Wreaths

Our favourite door decorations can be traced back to early Roman times, where people would gift each other boughs of evergreens for New Year. They were bent into rings as a circle has no end or beginning, so the wreath symbolises eternal rebirth, and quite simply look prettier. The early Romans were also show offs, hanging wreaths on their doors to show they’d received a gift. Evergreens were also gathered as a sign of emerging from the dark days of winter, and were decorated with candles to represent the power of the sun. Evergreens were also believed to protect the household by warding off negative spirits. Today, the Christmas wreath has evolved into a welcoming sign, celebrating generosity, giving and the gathering of loved ones (as well as embodying the early Roman spirit of showing off in front of your neighbours).

4. Holly

It seems we have even more to thank the ancient Romans for when it comes to Christmas plant traditions. During the darkest days of the year between 17 and 23 of December, the Romans sent each other boughs of holly to celebrate Saturn, the god of agriculture, whom which holly was the sacred plant of. Holly symbolises new growth and the return of light after the dark winter days. Holly was also a sacred plant for the Druids who wore holly crowns on their heads (who knew Glastonbury goers had the Druids to thank for festival outfit inspiration). Whilst other plants lose their leaves in winter, holly stays vibrant green with pops of red. Today, holly is a symbol of peace and joy and some cultures often settle arguments under the holly tree.

1. Poinsettia

And finally a festive foliage tradition that doesn’t come from the Romans. Poinsettias may be the grandma’s Christmas plant of choice, but it’s surprisingly exotic, with origins in southern Mexico. Flowering during the winter, the association with Christmas comes from the ancient Mexican myth whereby a poor girl gathered a bouquet of weeds to give as a small present to Jesus, who was probably more gracious when receiving than we’d be if we found that under the tree on Christmas Day instead of a box of Lindors or a nice bottle of gin. When the girl laid the weeds at the nativity scene, they miraculously burst into a bright red flower bouquet, leading them to be called ‘Flores de Noche Buena’, which means flowers of the holy night. However, the blooms of a poinsettia are actually the small yellow buds in the centre of the plant, the bright red colour we’ve come to associate with Christmas is actually the leaves of the plant!

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