Yule & Christmas Plants: The Poinsettia, Holly, Ivy and Mistletoe
The Christmas tree has long been the pillar of Christmas décor, but what about the other Christmas plants? Holly, Ivy and Mistletoe have also been a part of the Winter holidays, just as long as the Christmas tree. The poinsettia is also considered a magical Christmas plant in North America. But why? Let’s take a look at the folklore of the Poinsettia, the Holly, Ivy and the Mistletoe. And we’ll talk about how you can include these Christmas plants in your Christmas and Yule magic.
When Christmas Was Yule…
Before the rise of the church in the Dark Ages, people from every culture had their own Winter celebrations and traditions. Most of those traditions date back thousands of years ago to a time when our ancestors believed the earth was alive all around them. When Winter came, the earth seemed to go into a hibernation. As did the people. Evergreens were often brought inside to remind them of the everlasting life of the earth. That the sun would return and so would the plants and animals after Winter ended.
Most of our holiday traditions today originate in older times, including the Christmas tree, evergreen garlands, wreaths, mistletoe, feasting, the yule log, gift-giving, the list goes on. People from the Germanic tribes in particular are known to have celebrated the Winter season with extravagant festivities. Their Christmas was called Yule and later the term Yuletide was used. A wild boar was typically sacrificed to their gods and a feast had thereafter. Wine-drinking, toasting, and gift-giving were commonplace. They saw the Winter Solstice as a sacred time and found it necessary to gather together with family members to share their food stores.
In addition, they believed Winter was a time when spirits walked the earth freely. A ghostly procession of old gods, devils, fairies, animals and ghosts took the skies and collected lost souls on dark, stormy nights. This was called the Wild Hunt. Essentially, the Winter holidays were akin to Halloween today. Many of the evergreen plants brought inside for the Winter served not just as a decoration but also as warding tools to keep evil at bay.
Christmas Evergreens of Olde
When you think of Christmas, what plants or trees come to mind? Of course the Spruce and Fir trees, but what about the Christmas holly? Or mistletoe? Let’s explore the ancient history and modern traditions of some of our favorite holiday evergreens.
Christmas Holly History: Ancient & Magical
Our tradition of decorating with evergreens at Christmas has ancient roots. Christmas holly history begins hundreds of years ago in ancient Europe when the people used greenery to honor life in the dead of winter. One particularly special tree to the ancient Celts was the Holly tree. The Holly tree held sacred status and is reflected in the modern-day Winter Solstice ritual of the Oak and Holly Kings fighting to rule over the new year.
Ancient Roman Holly History
To the ancient Romans, Holly was popular as a gift during the winter festival Saturnalia. Christmas holly history is believed to have begun when the Romans brought the Christmas Holly to England where the people there also found it magical. The Holly tree was sacred because of its evergreen nature – shiny, bright green leaves and radiant red berries. Life in the dead of Winter.
The Holly in Medieval Times
In Medieval Times, the Christmas holly was woven into holiday poems. The Holly tree was personified as a fertile, handsome man while the Ivy was a beautiful young woman. Later, Christmas holly history changed and was converted into a Christian symbol – representing the body of Christ. Today it’s still used in wreaths and garland, sometimes you can see it woven around trees or pillars.
The Tradition of Christmas Ivy
Just as the Christmas holly tree was once personified as a young, virile man, the Christmas Ivy was his female counterpart. Ivy and holly and other evergreens not only honored life in the Dead of Winter but also warded off evil spirits. The Christmas Ivy’s magic dates back to the ancient Celts – it was linked to the Celtic goddess Arianrhod and thought to bring fertility to women. Again, a plant that lives even in Winter. The Christmas ivy has fallen out of favor in modern holiday celebrations, but wouldn’t it be wonderful to bring it back?
Christmas Mistletoe History
Christmas mistletoe history also dates to ancient times before the rise of the Church. You’ll rarely see mistletoe in Church, because it was regarded as an “evil” Christmas plant during the Middle Ages. The Church wanted to rid society of Pagan Winter customs, and mistletoe was one of those customs. However, the mistletoe tradition survived. Because mistletoe grows on trees, it has the ability to take on those trees’ magical properties, specifically the oak. Which was sacred to the ancient Druid priests. The ancient Germanic, Greek, and Celtic people believed mistletoe was magical and brought fertility, protection, and love.
The Kissing Bough
Known as the “kissing bough”, the Christmas mistletoe tradition involves hanging a bundle from a door-frame or over a threshold. And if two people stand under it together, they kiss! Christmas mistletoe history began because of the belief the plant brought fertility and love. In Scandinavia, people at war stood under the mistletoe to “kiss and make up”. There’s also a legend linked to the Norse gods Loki, Baldr, and Frigg.
Because of the association with pagan gods, the Church tried to eradicate the kissing bough from Christ’s Mass; however, it was unsuccessful. The tradition continues today! Even if you can’t get fresh mistletoe, a decorative false mistletoe works just as well. I have a “mistletoe” ball that I hang in an archway in my home, going from the sitting room to the kitchen area.
The Birch Tree: An Ancient Winter Symbol
Maybe the birch tree isn’t the first plant you think of at Christmas, but it always pops up into my mind. The birch is prehistoric and is likely the first living tree human beings saw after the last ice age. Their root systems are something to be studied and scientists have found they literally speak to each other through their roots. The birch has been linked to many ancient goddesses, specifically ones also linked to the Winter season, including Freya, Nerthus, Berchta, and Holda. And, in later centuries, the Christmas Devil known as Krampus would carry birch reeds with which to spank naughty children. The birch isn’t just a symbol of regeneration and renewal, it’s a symbol of the divine feminine. And it’s been used for thousands of years to ward off evil during the Winter months.
A Modern Christmas Plant: Poinsettia History & Lore
The Poinsettia is a plant that rears its red head in North America every time the winter holidays come around. Poinsettia history originates in Mexico. It was traditional in Mexico to leave presents for Baby Jesus on altars for Christmas Eve. Legend has it one day a poor little boy was upset because he had nothing to give the baby Jesus. He knelt at the Church’s door and prayed, and right where he was kneeling a beautiful poinsettia plant bloomed. Because of this story, Mexico calls the Poinsettia the “Flower of the Holy Night”.
How the Poinsettia Was Named
But the poinsettia’s history doesn’t stop there. This Christmas plant is named after the first American Ambassador to travel to Mexico in the 1800’s, Dr. Joel Roberts Poinsett. He took a particular interest in the Poinsettia plant and brought it back to the United States with him. So now it’s popular in Mexico and the U.S. during the Winter season.
Christmas Cactus: A Jolly Flowering Plant
My grandmother has had Christmas cacti for as long as I can remember. This is another more modern symbol of the holiday season, but a beautiful and popular one to be sure. This Christmas plant is indeed a cactus and originates in the mountains of Southeast Brazil. The most amazing thing about this cactus is that it blooms at Christmas time. My grandmother gave me one of hers and it did indeed bloom over the Christmas season. The blooms are beautiful shades of pink and red and are tubular in shape. When it blooms, I’m reminded of the joy and beauty in the holiday season.
How to Weave Christmas Plants into Your Winter Magic
The easiest way to incorporate these Christmas plants into your holiday magic is to decorate your home and sacred space with them. Even if you can’t find live/dried versions of these plants, you can always use false greenery on your altar and throughout the house. My grandmother used to wind a garland of false holly and ivy around her stair rails along with Christmas lights. And I always loved how it looked! In addition, hang mistletoe on a door frame and uphold the ancient kissing bough tradition. Poinsettia plants can be placed at the front door to usher in joy and peace. If you really want to get Christmas-crazy, re-create the Holly and Oak King battle at your holiday party or family dinner!