For many people, the holidays are more than presents and time with family and friends; the holidays are a time to decorate your home with the beauty of their favorite plants. This is a history of holiday plants and why they were used originally–we often forget these traditions have origins and it is worth exploring why we kiss under mistletoe or why poinsettias are so common around Christmastime.
Also known as the Christmas Star or Christmas Flower, the Poinsettia was first brought to the United States by the first Mexico Ambassador, Dr. Joel Roberts Poinsett, from whom the flower gets its name, in the 1820’s, though it did not get its name until 1936. Before then, it was known as the “painted leaf” or “Mexican fire plant”.
The history of the Poinsettias use at Christmas time dates back to an old Mexican legend involving a poor boy that could not afford flowers for the church manger. According to the story, an angel appeared and told the boy to pick some weeds from the side of the road. When the boy placed the weeds in the manger they turned bright red, and the “Flower of Christmas Eve was born.
The name Amaryllis comes from Greek mythology and means “to sparkle”. While they are available year-round, the Amaryllis has close ties to Christmas and the holidays due to its ability to be grown indoors with little maintenance or effort.
The Amaryllis also has ties to a Christmas story involving St. Joseph’s Staff. According to the legend, Joseph was only chosen to become the husband of the Virgin Mary after his staff sprouted and bloomed Amaryllis flowers during the selection process conducted by a high priest.
The history of Rosemary dates back thousands of years, and is steeped in both tradition and myth. The ancient Romans and Greeks believed Rosemary had healing powers. During the Middle Ages, Rosemary was commonly scattered on the floor on Christmas Eve. When people would enter a home the smell would fill the air, with a belief that those who smelled Rosemary would have a year filled with happiness and good health.
This led to the common use of Rosemary in holiday wreaths and this tradition continues to modern times, a benefit for those of us who enjoy the wonderful smell as we head over to our holiday destinations.
Catchy Christmas Carols aside, Holly has a long history as a holiday symbol due to their religious symbolism and evergreen nature. Used for centuries as a symbol of the winter solstice, Holly was adopted by Christians during their winter celebrations.
According to Christian traditions, Holly’s prickly thorns represent the crown Jesus wore during his crucifixion, and the berries represent the blood that he shed. In fact, throughout Scandinavia Holly is commonly called the Christ Thorn. Today, you can find Holly in wreaths, centerpieces, boughs, and other seasonal decorations.
The Mistletoe that is commonly used around the holidays is actually native to North America. The other kind – found in European countries – is a green shrub with small yellow flowers and white berries. The North American variety is the green plant with red berries we most commonly see today.
The kissing plant – or Mistletoe as it is more commonly known – has a history steeped in life and fertility. From Greek marriage rituals to modern times, this parasitic plant has enticed people to smooch for centuries. During the eighteenth century, the English created a kissing ball, which was Mistletoe trimmed with ribbons and ornaments. A young lady standing under the ball could not be refused a kiss.