The History Behind Christmas Plants

 Kay Hinkle
Adams County Master Gardener

What could be more fitting at Christmas than listing popular holiday plants associated with the religious history and traditions of Christmas? From poinsettias to holly, from mistletoe to dogwood, do you know how history gave them the religious significance they have today?

First, poinsettias came from Mexico when Dr. Joel Poinsett, the first US ambassador to Mexico, brought the plant back in 1828. The Mexicans had long revered poinsettias because they resembled the Star of Bethlehem, the place documented in the Bible as the birthplace of Jesus Christ. Did you know that the poinsettia flower has neither red nor white flowers? The leaves are red, white or variations thereof, and the flowers are the small yellow blossoms in the center.

Mistletoe has a history that dates back to ancient days when Norseman associated mistletoe with their Goddess of Love. Since Christians viewed mythology and the Norsemen's gods as blasphemy, the early church promoted holly as an alternative to mistletoe, which was seen as pagan at that time. Holly also has significance in the Christian faith as the berries are symbolic of Christ's blood and the thorny leaves suggest the thorns in His crown. Until reading this documentation, I thought the true value of mistletoe in Christmas tradition was that is was just a good place to steal a kiss!

Germans in the 7th Century AD first conceived the idea of a Christmas tree. It was Martin Luther, founder of the Lutheran church, who initiated the practice of placing lights on Christmas trees in the 16th century. Awed at the brilliance of stars shining through evergreen boughs, he mimicked that sight for his family by placing candles on his Christmas tree. This practice is not recommended due to the obvious fire hazard it brings to the home in today's world of electricity. (Ralph Morris invented the electric Christmas light in 1895, making it much safer to light the family's Christmas tree.)

Moving from Christmas to Easter for a moment - the dogwood flower has four bracts that are symbolic of the crucifixion because the four petals can be thought of as the cross. There is a story in folklore that the dogwood was once a mighty tree like the oak, but was used to make the cross of Christ and from that time on, it became a small and twisted tree out of shame. But I digress, as we are about to celebrate Christmas, not Easter.

So this Christmas, as you hang evergreen garlands intertwined with holly, think about the origin of the custom and its significance. As you carefully place that poinsettia in its chosen spot, know that there are many who enjoy its holiday splendor for more than the color of its leaves. And hang some mistletoe, if you'd like, just for the heck of it!

Most importantly, take time to celebrate with friends and family this Christmas. Take time for you, if possible. Enjoy the hustle and bustle of the holidays; savor each moment and be thankful for the freedom we enjoy in this country to exercise our own personal beliefs - whatever they are. And as a Master Gardener, I would be remiss if I didn't remind you to take in the brilliance of holiday flora, complete with all the glorious holiday light displays our community has to offer. Happy Holidays to you and yours!

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