The Homeowners Column

The Homeowners Column

Plants in Holiday Traditions

Photo of Sandra Mason

Sandra Mason
Extension Educator, Horticulture
slmason@illinois.edu

Plants are an integral part of our celebrations and rituals. Weddings, funerals and holidays would not be complete without them. Some associations go back hundreds of years. The use of evergreens and mistletoe in celebrations predates Christianity.

However the more recent plant associations are within the Kwanzaa Celebration of family, community and culture within the world African community during December 26 through January 1. Plants are a part of the seven basic symbols of Kwanzaa ceremonies. Mazao, The Crops, are symbolic of African harvest celebrations and of the rewards of productive and collective labor. Muhindi, The Corn, is symbolic of children and the future which they embody.

The winter holiday season would be incomplete without the bright red of poinsettias. Poinsettias are native to Mexico where it has long been associated with the Christmas season. Mexicans believed the plants were symbolic of the Star of Bethlehem and traditionally would take the flowers to church on Christmas Eve.

Joseph Poinsett, U.S. ambassador to Mexico in the late 1800's, was responsible for sending the poinsettia to the United States. He admired the plant's beautiful red bracts blanketing the hills of Mexico. What a coincidence he would find a plant with the same name as his! Actually William Prescott, a historian and horticulturist, coined the name poinsettia in honor of Poinsett's introduction.

Even the lowly pickle is associated with Christmas traditions. According to the Herbert Hoover Library the tradition of hiding a pickle inside the Christmas tree comes from a medieval folktale. The story tells of two Spanish boys traveling home from boarding school for the holidays. They were tired from their travels so they stopped at an inn to spend the night. The innkeeper was a mean and evil man. He stole their possessions and then stuffed the boys into a pickle barrel.

That evening, St. Nicholas stopped at the inn for a rest. He found out that the boys were inside the pickle barrel. St. Nicholas tapped the pickle barrel with his staff and the boys were magically restored. After thanking St. Nicholas for his help, they continued on home for Christmas.

The Victorian tradition has been to hide a hand-blown glass pickle on the Christmas tree. Whoever finds it first on Christmas morning receives a special gift.

The Egyptians, Romans and Druids all used decorated trees in winter celebrations long before the beginnings of Christianity. Egyptians in celebrating the winter solstice brought green date palms into their homes as a symbol of "life triumphant over death". The winter solstice, December 21, has the shortest daylight of the year. After December 21 daylight increases. Sounds like something to celebrate to me. But most historians agree that the use of an evergreen tree as part of the Christian Christmas celebrations started about 400 years ago in Germany.

As a holiday decoration, mistletoe is one of the oldest in common use. Mistletoe was widely used centuries before Christ as a religious symbol in pagan rituals. The ancient Druids of Britain regarded mistletoe as sacred and believed it had both magical powers and medicinal properties. Mistletoe was so sacred to the Druids that if two enemies met beneath a tree on which mistletoe was growing, they would lay down their weapons, exchange greetings and observe a 24 hour truce. Maybe we need to hang more mistletoe around the world.

Until the 20th century the herb rosemary was a very popular Christmas plant, right up there with holly and mistletoe. Why rosemary fell out of favor as a Christmas plant is a mystery. I'll bet if kissing were involved it would still be popular. But the plant is making a comeback in wreathes and topiaries. An offering of rosemary signifies love and remembrance. And a sprig in your stew is quite tasty too.

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