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Christmas Traditions

Yuletide Plants

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Photo of yew berry or

Photo of yew berry or "aril."

David Beaulieu

It is not surprising that Christmas traditions and winter solstice lore have sprung up around certain plants: for ages, people have cultivated an emotional investment in them. For example, evergreen trees and the clippings of evergreen shrubs have long been harvested in snowy climes and brought inside around the winter solstice to remind us of better times to come. When everything else on the landscape is dead or dormant, the plants of our Christmas traditions serve as symbols for the much-anticipated return of spring's verdant landscape.

As a result, these plants have become renowned in fable and song. While Christmas trees and mistletoe immediately come to mind, they are not alone. Other plants boast Yuletide or winter solstice lore of their own, of which we may be unaware due to the temporal or geographical remoteness of the heritage in question.

Poinsettias

Not all plants tied to Christmas traditions are evergreen. Poinsettias have become almost as closely associated with the holiday season in North America as are Christmas trees. But some North Americans are surprised when they learn that poinsettias are sub-tropical plants, native to Mexico (if you've ever had a poinsettia suffer damage from the cold, though, upon bringing it hastily out of a florist shop, you've probably already suspected that the plants hail from warmer climes). Once you realize their origin, however, it's hardly surprising that the most famous lore surrounding poinsettias is a Mexican legend.

Read article: Poinsettias

Holly

Decking the halls with boughs of holly: It's an enduring wintertime ritual. Holly was part of winter solstice lore long before there was ever a Noel. Holly also plays a part in another Christmas tradition: the carol, "The Holly and the Ivy" (see below).

Read article: Holly

Mistletoe

At parties during the holidays, kissing under the mistletoe is sanctioned as a Yuletide ritual. After the kissing is over, we promptly forget about mistletoe for another year. That's unfortunate, because there's much more in the history of this fascinating plant than just providing cover for stolen kisses.

Read article: Mistletoe

Yew

North Americans may not associate the yew with the holiday season. In Europe, however, a Yuletide role has been reserved for this evergreen shrub, easily identified by its unique red berries. As a landscape plant, yew shrubs are valued as slow-growing (and, therefore, low-maintenance) plants tolerant of shady conditions.

Read article: Yew

"The Holly and the Ivy"

"The Holly and the Ivy" is a 17th-18th century carol. The influences underlying the song actually go back much further than that. "The Holly and the Ivy" originated in a time period when people were more inclined to understand and employ plant symbology than are we moderns. The result is that "The Holly and the Ivy" strikes most 21st-century folks as a rather curious carol. Click the link that follows to gain insight into the meaning behind this revered Yuletide song.

"The Holly and the Ivy"

Christmas Trees

No list of plants steeped in Yuletide lore would, of course, be complete without mention of Christmas trees. But as my article reveals, this icon was not granted a place in the Christmas tradition without a fight: its pagan roots were a significant point of contention with Christians for ages before it gained general acceptance. In fact, to this day, there are Christians who feel that this evergreen symbol has no place in their observance of the holiday.

Christmas Tree History

Further Reading

I discuss these and other plants in the following resource, as well, but with a focus on their use as an alternative to store-bought outdoor holiday decorations:

Natural Outdoor Christmas Decorations

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