The History Of Christmas Plants

By Sharon Naylor

September 4, 2009 5 min read

It's hard to imagine a Christmas without the vibrant colors of poinsettias or that first kiss under the mistletoe. For many of us, the traditional Christmas plants -- namely poinsettia, mistletoe and holly - are constants in our holiday d?cor. We look forward to placing those red or white poinsettias by the fireplace, and we cut sprigs of holly to accent our holiday table centerpieces. But do you know how these plants and flowers came to be iconic Christmastime elements?

Bruce Forbes -- professor of religious studies at Morningside College, in Sioux City, Iowa, and author of "Christmas: A Candid History" (University of California Press, 2007) -- shares their origins as springing from a long history of winter festivals. "If you go back to medieval times, it was hard to survive in winter," Forbes says. "It was cold and dark, a very difficult season. So even long before Christianity, the various cultures across Europe held winter festivals to give themselves something to look forward to, to welcome back the longer days of more sunshine, the return of life. Many of these festivals featured plants that would stay green in the winter, whereas other types of plants would be dry and dead. Plants that bore fruit were especially welcome at these festivals. So there you have the origin of the holly plant, with its bright berries, the evergreen, mistletoe, bearing fruit -- all signs of life in plants and a natural part of their celebration."

Over time, as Christianity heralded late December as the birth of Christ, these winter celebration elements were embraced into Christmas celebrations, symbols of life that they were.

"The date that Christians celebrate Jesus' birth fell in the middle of three Roman midwinter festivals, so the people incorporated a growing collection of winter symbols and rituals as what became Christmas celebrations," says Forbes.

The legend of mistletoe is said to have arisen from Greek legend saying that mistletoe had mystical powers, so it was used in many good-luck rituals. European folklore held it as a symbol of life and fertility, and some groups also considered it an aphrodisiac. In the Middle Ages, mistletoe was hung in homes to ward off evil spirits and witches. From those origins came our modern practice of kissing under the mistletoe, which is thought to have originated in the Roman festival of Saturnalia, while Scandinavian folklore calls mistletoe a peacemaking plant, under which squabbling spouses kiss and make up.

Forbes shares a folktale about the origin of poinsettias as an iconic Christmas plant: "There is a legend in religious lore about a little girl who wanted to go to the manger to welcome the baby Jesus, but she was heartbroken that she did not have a gift that was beautiful enough to give. So she was said to gather a handful of weeds to present as her gift. According to the story, Jesus turned those humble weeds into beautiful flowers, which are now known as the poinsettia plant. In translation, the plant was called 'Flowers of the Holy Night.'"

The poinsettia grew over time to become an even greater symbol of the Christmas season through the work of Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first U.S. ambassador to Mexico, who introduced the plant into the United States in 1828. Poinsettias, too, have a long, rich history. "Poinsettias are actually native to Mexico," Forbes says. "What we have long considered the flower of the plant is actually the leaves. And the leaves of the plant would turn from green to red when there was less natural light in winter. Since this plant bloomed beautifully it winter, it was a natural to incorporate into Christmas celebrations. Poinsett, who happened to be something of an amateur botanist, learned about the poinsettia, was fascinated by its winter coloring, and brought great attention to the plant across the country."

That popularity grew. According to the Society of American Florists, almost 30 percent of Americans purchase holiday flowers, most often poinsettias, and the Christmas and Hanukkah season is the biggest floral-buying season of the year, topping even Mother's Day and Valentine's Day. More than 66 million poinsettias are sold annually, according to the Society of American Florists' report. Across the country, mistletoe festivals take place, with revelers still participating in the same types of winter festivals that ancient societies held, heralding light, hope, natural beauty and the return of life.

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