There are many traditions associated with the holidays. Many involve plants. Evergreen trees, poinsettias, holly, and mistletoe played important roles in ancient legends and rituals, but have evolved into traditions associated with the Christmas season.
The Christmas Tree
The Christmas tree is a tradition which began in Germany in the seventeenth century. There are several legends concerning the origin of the Christmas tree. Historians do know that the primitive cultures of northern Europe believed that evergreen trees possessed godlike powers. The evergreen tree also symbolized immortality. The Germanic peoples would bring evergreen boughs into their homes during winter to insure the protection of the home and the return of life to the snow-covered forest. As Christianity spread throughout Europe, eventually the evergreen tree was transformed into a Christian symbol.
Some believe the Christmas tree evolved from the Paradise Tree of the Middle Ages. During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, evergreen trees played an important role in miracle and mystery plays. One such play dramatized the fall of Adam and Eve and was performed on December 24. On stage during the play was a Paradise Tree (an evergreen with red apples hung from its branches).
Others believe that the Christmas tree began in the sixteenth century with Martin Luther. According to the legend, Martin Luther was inspired by the beauty of evergreens one Christmas Eve. He cut down a tree, brought it home, and decorated it with candles.
The first record of a Christmas tree is in Strasburg, Germany in 1604. German immigrants and Hessian soldiers hired by the British to fight the colonists during the American Revolution brought the Christmas tree tradition to the United States.
Poinsettias are native to Mexico. They were cultivated by the Aztec Indians. The colorful bracts were used to make a reddish purple dye. The Aztecs also made a fever medicine from the poinsettia's milky sap.
After the Spanish conquest and the introduction of Christianity, poinsettias began to be used in Christian rituals. Franciscan priests used the poinsettia in their nativity processions.
Poinsettias were first introduced into the United States by Joel Robert Poinsett, the first U.S. Ambassador to Mexico. Poinsett had plants sent to his home in South Carolina. He then distributed plants to horticultural friends and botanical gardens. The Ecke family of California has been instrumental in the development of today's poinsettia.
Initially poinsettias lasted only a few days in the home. All had red bracts. Today's varieties are more compact, durable, and long-lasting. Red, pink, white, gold, marbled, and variegated varieties are now available.
Mistletoe is a semi-parasitic plant with small, leathery leaves and small, white berries. Mistletoe plants manufacture their own food, but must obtain water and minerals from the host plant.
American mistletoe (Phoradendron serotinum) can be found growing in deciduous trees from New Jersey and southern Indiana southward to Florida and Texas. It is the state flower of Oklahoma. Mistletoe sold during the holiday season is gathered in the wild. Most mistletoe is harvested in Oklahoma and Texas.
Traditions involving mistletoe date back to ancient times. Druids believed that mistletoe could bestow health and good luck. Welsh farmers associated mistletoe with fertility. A good mistletoe crop foretold a good crop the following season. Mistletoe was also thought to influence human fertility and was prescribed to individuals who had problems bearing children. Mistletoe has also been used in medicine. It has been used as treatment for pleurisy, gout, epilepsy, rabies, and poisoning. Mistletoe also played a role in a superstition concerning marriage. It was believed that kissing under the mistletoe increased the possibility of marriage in the upcoming year.
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.
Holly was considered sacred by the ancient Romans. Holly was used to honor Saturn, god of agriculture, during their Saturnalia festival held during the winter solstice. The Romans gave one another holly wreaths, carried it in processions, and decked images of Saturn with it. During the early years of the Christian religion in Rome, many Christians continued to deck their homes with holly to avoid detection and persecution by Roman authorities. Gradually, holly became a symbol of Christmas as Christianity became the dominant religion of the empire.
Wassailing is the tradition of going from house to house caroling, eating, drinking, and socializing with friends and relatives. Wassailing, however, was originally an important part of a horticultural ritual. In England, it focused on the apple orchards. The purpose was to salute the trees in the dead of winter to insure a good crop for the coming year. The date varied across the 12 days of Christmas. If done formally, the wassail procession visited the principal orchards of the area, caroling as it went. In each orchard, major trees were selected and cider or liquor was sprinkled over their root systems. Incantations such as
Stand fast at root,
Bear well at top,
Every twig bear apple big,
Every bow bear apple now.
Here's to thee old apple tree,
Hats full, sacks full,
Great bushel baskets full,
were recited. To frighten evil spirits away, guns were fired into the air. Before proceeding, the procession usually danced about the honored trees and then snaked its way out of the orchard. The care with which the ceremony had been executed was measured by the crop yield the following year.
As you celebrate this holiday season with friends and relatives, enjoy the Christmas traditions and the ancient rituals and legends associated with them.
This article originally appeared in the December 8, 1995 issue, pp. 8, 1995 issue, pp. 157-158.