Though lights, ornaments and tinsel are popular Christmas decorations, there is still room for holiday greenery. As their name suggests, evergreen plants are green all the time, and because of this, people throughout history have regarded them as special symbols of eternal life or rebirth. Such plants also offered medicinal benefits as well. During the season with the darkest days of the year (at least in the Northern Hemisphere), evergreens present a vibrant contrast to the natural world outside.
Over time, plants like holly, pine and mistletoe have been incorporated into the traditions of Christmas, though not without continued controversy. While the use of some evergreen plants by the ancient Romans and Druids, for example, pre-dates Christianity, some of them have characteristics that have come to represent symbols of Christ or the season commemorating his birth.
Holly (Ilex aquifolium)
One popular Christmas greenery is holly, which is a native tree of central and southern Europe. An old legend says that holly grew under the footsteps of Jesus Christ, and its thorny leaves and red berries symbolize his physical suffering on the cross. This is why holly is known as ‘Christ’s Thorn’ in some northern European countries. While holly leaves were once used to treat illnesses characterized by fever, the plant’s berries are strongly emetic.
Mistletoe (Viscum album)
Mistletoe is actually an evergreen, parasitic plant that grows on tree branches. According to Botanical.com, the Druids thought that mistletoe protected people against evil. They used mistletoe to produce cures. Even today, extract of mistletoe is used to treat cancer in Europe, though scientific studies regarding its efficacy are not reliable. Young Druids would present branches of mistletoe to others to signify the new year, and this early custom influenced its modern use as a seasonal decoration in the home, though it has not developed any symbolism concerning the life of Jesus.
According to the U.S. Geological Survey, there are over 1,300 species of mistletoe all over the world, 20 of which are endangered. Mistletoe provides food, shelter and nesting areas for a number of insects, birds and butterflies. The etymology of “mistletoe” may be based on the observation that the evergreen was found in places where bird droppings fell. In Anglo-Saxon, “mistel” is the word for “dung” and “tan” is the word for “twig.”
Poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima)
The poinsettia plant became popular in the United States after the U.S.
Minister to Mexico, Dr. Joel Poinsett, who was a botanist, brought some
plants to his home in South Carolina from their native Mexico. According to legend, a poor, young girl was upset she didn’t have a gift to offer in church on Christmas Eve so she presented some bright, green weeds she found nearby. During the Christmas Eve service, the weeds miraculously transformed into beautiful plants with red, star-shaped flowers. The story underscores the sentiment of offering gifts with humility. In Mexico, the poinsettia is known as “flor de la noche buena,” which is “Holy Night Flower.”
Probably the most recognized decorative Christmas display all over the world is the Christmas tree, which today is usually one of several species of pine trees. It is possible that the origin of the modern day Christmas tree comes from eleventh century religious plays that featured a “Paradise” tree, which was a prop used to tell the story of Adam and Eve. According to the University of Illinois Extension, the most popular Christmas trees include Scotch pine, Virginia pine, white pine, Douglas fir, Noble fir, Fraser fir, and balsam fir. According to legend, the triangular outline of some pine trees signifies the trinity of Creator, Son, and Holy Spirit.
The Christmas Wreath is traditionally made of branches of evergreens, such as pine. The scent of pine essential oil eases ailments of the respiratory system, like colds and cougsh, and its application also helps reduce stress-related conditions. Because the wreath’s circular shape has no beginning or end, it is said to represent God’s never ending love and infinite presence and also the continual cycle of life.