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Photo of holly

 

While every family celebrates different holidays with different traditions, there are some that translate universally across the globe. The trees we trim and the boughs of holly we deck our halls with are not simply festive decorations. These traditional holiday plants have served as symbols of winter and Christmas custom for centuries. The deeper meaning of these botanical decorations remind us of the rich significance of Christmas history.

Poinsettia

This Christmas flower has been used in Mexico since the Aztecs used it for dye in the 14th through 16th century, and was brought to the United States in 1828 by Dr. Joel Roberts Poinsett for whom the plant was named. According to the University of Illinois, poinsettias account for 85 percent of holiday potted-plant sales and sell $220 million worth each year. There is even a “National Poinsettia Day” on December 12.

Based on a Mexican legend, a poor child (some say it was a little girl, others a little boy) could only afford to bring weeds as a gift to Jesus. The weeds suddenly turned into a beautiful red plant that was called Flores de Noche Buena, or “flowers of the holy night.” Poinsettias are generally red, but also grow in pink and white, and go by many other names, including “Mexican flaming leaf” and “lobster flower.” A common misconception, it is actually the leaves that are striking colors, the flowers are much smaller.

Pine Tree

What is Christmas without a Christmas tree? How did this holiday staple become so prevalent among global cultures? As told by the History Channel, evergreen trees were used as home decoration during winter months long before they became a Christmas tradition. From Egypt to Rome to Germany, ancient cultures across the world used pines and other evergreens to remind them of the power of life. Germany originally started decorating trees for Christmas in the 16th century and German settlers brought the tradition to America in the 1830s.

Many legends surround the Christmas tree tradition. One favorite legend (that also has some historical merit) is the story of St. Bonafice who was a missionary in Germany in the year 725. The people worshipped a great oak tree with human sacrifices. Angered by this, Bonafice chopped down the oak with a single blow and from its center sprung an evergreen sapling. Bonafice told the people that this was a symbol of Christ’s ultimate sacrifice and promise of eternal life.

Holly

Like evergreen trees, holly stays strong and lasts through harsh winters. According to TLC, ancient Druids regarded holly plants as sacred and even thought them to have magical powers and bring good luck. Romans decorated with holly as a symbol of worship to Saturn, the god of harvest. Christians adopted the holly tradition from the Druids and Romans and decked their halls with its boughs to symbolize the life of Christ. The red berries represented the blood of Jesus and the prickly leaves symbolized his crown of thorns. TLC reports of one traditional legend that holly berries were originally white and only turned red after Christ’s sacrifice.

Mistletoe

Mistletoe is a parasite that grows on trees, evergreen even in winter when the tree is bare. So who came up with the notion that we should hang it in our homes and kiss underneath it? It was the Druids who believed mistletoe hung in a home brought peace and joy. To them and other cultures, it was a symbol of fertility and procreation due to its lasting and thriving nature. According to Apartment Therapy, legend states the Greek goddess Artemis wore a crown of mistletoe to represent fertility and eternal life. In Norse tradition, enemies who who met under mistletoe growing in the forest had to lay down their weapons and declare truce. Many believe this gesture of peace turned into the tradition of kissing when meeting under mistletoe.

Apartment Therapy also cited an ancient legend of Baldar, the god of summer sun, that ties mistletoe to kissing. Thor’s evil brother, Loki, killed Baldar with a poisoned dart made from mistletoe. Baldar’s mother, Frigga, cried tears that turned the red berries of the plant to white and Baldar came back to life. The story reads, “From her gratitude she blessed with a kiss everyone who walked beneath mistletoe, declaring that the mistletoe must forever after bring love rather than death into the world.”

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