The poinsettia, mistletoe, holly and ivy plants have become synonymous with Christmas, but have you ever stopped to wonder why? Here is a brief history of the symbolism behind these yuletide favourites.
Holly and ivy
These two plants have something of an intertwined history. In fact, at one point, it was believed that holly and ivy were the same plant, with holly being the male and ivy the female. Some of this is due to both being vibrant evergreens that stand out against a winter backdrop at a time when far fewer native plants thrive.
Holly and ivy were central to a number of pagan festivals aimed at appeasing the gods and appealing for a good harvest the following year. It was also believed that they warded off evil spirits. Holly and ivy represented new growth and fertility in the cold, dark winter months, when summer must have felt very far away. Imagine how luscious and full of life holly’s dense green leaves and vibrant red berries must have seemed in those dark days.
As Christianity spread through Europe, holly came to be a powerful symbol of the crown of thorns worn by Jesus at the crucifixion. The jewel red of the berries also symbolises Christ’s blood, and the green leaves symbolises the hope for eternal life. It is therefore no surprise that holly and ivy are traditionally used for decorations at Christmas time, and that images of these two plants are commonly used for Christmas cards and to represent Christmas festivities. Indeed, prior to the Victorian adoption of the fir tree, early Christmas trees were, in fact, holly trees.
Whether it’s sprigs of holly on your Christmas pudding, boughs of holly on your mantlepiece or a holly wreath on your door, this lovely, hardy plant has come to be the very essence of a traditional Christmas.
Originally a native of Mexico, mistletoe is another evergreen that flowers in winter. This unusual parasitic plant winds itself around the host tree, from which it then derives its nutrients and moisture. In the UK, mistletoe is most often found on cultivated apple trees, and also on hawthorn, poplar and lime. Plentiful white berries make mistletoe an attractive plant, and it has long been valued for its healing properties.
In ancient Celtic culture, mistletoe was used to fight infection, and modern research suggests it can boost the immune system and relieve stress and anxiety. In some countries, mistletoe essence is used in complementary medicine to help combat the side effects of cancer treatments.
Best known as a symbol of fertility and romance, the more recent idea of kissing under the mistletoe was popularised as a Christmas tradition amongst servants in the 18th century, and it likely stemmed from mentions in much older Norse stories. The idea was that one kiss could be granted for each berry taken from the tree, a tradition that lives on today. The practice formed an integral part of the Christmas festivities for hard-working servants who had very little time off and were rarely able to socialise with their fellow workers. Fun would have been in short supply, so any tradition that allowed for romance and the relaxation of strict etiquette would have been very welcome.
Mistletoe berries are poisonous to humans, but birds love them. In fact, this is how the plant seeds are spread – through bird droppings that stick to leaves often quite high up in the host tree.
The national emblem of Madagascar, the poinsettia is originally a native species of Mexico. In 1825, keen botanist Joel Roberts Poinsett became the US Ambassador to Mexico, and three years later, on a trip to Taxco in the southern mountains, he discovered an amazing shrub with striking eight-foot-tall flower heads that were bright scarlet and unlike anything he’d ever seen before. He took cuttings, brought these plants home to cultivate, and the resulting plants were eventually named after him.
The link with Christmas comes from an old Mexican story about a young girl called Pepita, who was so poor she could only bring a bunch of weeds into church to offer as a gift for Jesus on Christmas Eve. The weeds miraculously blossomed into glorious red poinsettias, which then became known as ‘Flowers of the Holy Night’, or ‘Flores de Noche Buena’ in Spanish.
The distinctive shape of the poinsettia leaves is also sometimes believed to symbolise the Star of Bethlehem, which led the Wise Men to Jesus. Like the holly berry, the red of the foliage symbolises the blood of Christ, while the white leaves represent goodness and purity.
In recent years, poinsettia have become the UK’s most popular Christmas indoor plant, representing over 40% of sales of plants for the largest retailers. In a market that is limited to the few weeks of the Christmas period, over four million of these plants are sold annually. Pink and white varieties are available, but the traditional red poinsettia is by far the most popular.
Hugely popular, but very difficult to look after, many of us struggle to keep our poinsettias alive beyond Boxing Day. These are tropical plants that need sunlight and plenty of water, and they can be easily damaged by cold temperatures. We often buy our poinsettias on a cold day and then transport them in a cold car boot, and many have already suffered some damage by the time we get them home. If you want your poinsettia to last, avoid extreme cold, keep the soil moist, place your plant where it can absorb sunlight and be mindful of the drying effects of central heating.
All four of these plants offer us the opportunity to bring vibrancy and colour into our homes at a time of year when the landscape can look dull and rather depressing. Perhaps more than that, however, they also symbolise some of the key messages of the Christmas period – hope for the future, love for our fellow human beings and a celebration of family and community.