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The History Behind Our Holiday Plants

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I had to do it.  I just had to do some digging to find out why the Christmas Tree, Poinsettias, Holly and Mistletoe have become such a large part of our holiday traditions.  Whenever I step foot into any store lately, I find myself glancing to see what their holiday plants look like.  Even the local grocery store is getting in on the fun by selling Poinsettias and small sprigs of Mistletoe.  It made me start to wonder why these plants are so dear to us.  Here is what I discovered...

The Christmas Tree

Evergreen trees were used to celebrate the winter season well before the birth of Christ, but the first decorated Christmas tree is recorded as being in Riga, Latvia in 1510.  The American Colonists rarely observed Christmas in 1776, but it was this celebration that helped George Washington and his army defeat the Hessians.

"On Christmas eve in 1776 some of the 30,000 German mercenaries (Hessians) hired to aid the British troops, were in a joyful mood for two reasons: they were close to defeating George Washington's troops and it was Christmas Eve, a time of enthusiastic rejoicing with food, songs and decorated trees.  Not much attention was being paid to their military duties.  Early on December 26th Washington and his army attacked and were able to defeat their usually well prepared foes." ~Source: Auburn University

German immigrants that stayed or moved to the colonies brought this tradition with them.  They traditionally brought evergreen branches into their homes to protect their homes, and ensure the return of the sun and spring.  The evergreen eventually changed into a Christian symbol as Christianity spread throughout Europe.


The Poinsettia as a holiday plant really has an interesting history.  It is native to Mexico and it was due to the introduction of Christianity after the Spanish conquest that these vibrant plants, called Cuetlaxochitl, were brought into the holiday rituals.  During the 17th century, Franciscan priests noticed them blooming and incorporated them into their celebrations to represent the blood of Christ.

Cuetlaxochitl were first introduced into the United States by the first U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, Joel Robert Poinsett.  He liked the plant so much that he had them sent to his home and shared them with horticultural friends and botanical gardens in the US. It has been called Poinsettia ever since.


The Greeks and Romans used holly during the winter season to decorate their homes because they considered it sacred.  They believed that it must have special powers to be able to stay green throughout the year.  It was also used to honor Saturn, god of agriculture, during their festival held for the winter solstice.  The Romans exchanged holly wreaths and decorated their Saturn icons with them. When Christianity began to spread, the Romans used holly as decoration in their homes as a way to continue past rituals while avoiding detection and persecution by Christian Roman authorities. Christian priests preferred the use of holly over mistletoe because it's thorny leaves symbolized Christ's crown of thorns, and the bright red berries, drops of his blood.  


You can trace the lore of this plant back to ancient peoples.  The Druids believed it brought good luck and health; the Welsh believed that a good crop of mistletoe meant a fertile crop for farmers the following year. The most common belief was that kissing under the mistletoe would increase your chance of being married within the year.  According to William Irving in 1520, the berries of mistletoe were to be plucked by a young man every time he kissed a young girl under it.  When all of the berries were gone, the mistletoe lost it's powers. Although mistletoe has been used in the treatment of several ailments, the berries are poisonous. Individuals using mistletoe during the holiday season should keep the sprigs out of the reach of children. For safety reasons, many companies have replaced the berries with artificial, plastic berries.  The Christians incorporated mistletoe into the holiday celebrations because it had a long history of being used by their ancient ancestors in their winter solstice rituals.  


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