In celebration of the Winter Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere, we’re highlighting winter plants that have become staples in modern holiday traditions. This interesting fact sheet was compiled by Margaret Riche, an instructor in our GreenHouse Horticultural Therapy Program on Rikers Island.
The winter solstice initiates the beginning of the coldest season, and dating back to the neolithic era, cultures have held celebrations at this time. After the solstice, the days get increasingly frigid, but the sun rises earlier and stays longer, a symbol of hope in a time of relative scarcity. The imagery of bright light has been a feature of wintertime holidays across the world, as has the hardy greenery that thrives through the frost.
In fact, many of the plants people identify with Christmas were used for winter celebrations far before the advent of Christianity. Every year we see decorated evergreen trees, mistletoe, and poinsettias, but oftentimes we never learn the origin of these plant traditions or their meanings. By exploring these beautiful plants, we take a trip through history and mythology that adds a new depth to our appreciation of winter decor!
Evergreens have been sprucing up homes during wintertime for thousands of years, pre-dating the tradition of the Christmas tree. They are ancient symbols of nature’s hardiness due to their ability to retain their leaves through the cold winter. Boughs of evergreens, especially pine, spruce, and fir, were hung in homes and were thought to bring about protection, fertility, and good luck.
Early Romans decorated their temples with evergreen boughs during the celebration of Saturnalia. This holiday, which takes place from December 17th to the 23rd, honors Saturn, the god of agriculture. It is a tradition of great merry-making and gift exchanging and is a predecessor to many Christmas traditions.
The Christmas tree’s exact origins are somewhat disputed, but many aspects of the tradition can trace their beginnings to Celtic, Germanic, and Viking traditions. Celtic druids decorated evergreen trees with fruits, nuts, and coins during the onset of winter to ensure a fruitful coming year. In these ancient cultures (as in many cultures worldwide), trees (especially evergreen) were venerated as symbols of nature’s cycle of rebirth.
The first evidence of decorating Christmas trees indoors belongs to Renaissance-Era artisan guilds in Northern Germany. Workers would bring in evergreen trees and decorate them with sweets to be enjoyed by apprentices and children. On the last night of holiday celebrations, revelers brought the tree into the town square to be danced around. The Christmas tree tradition then spread throughout Germany. Some homes would decorate a pyramidal pile of wood logs with evergreen boughs and lights in place of a full tree. These traditions came to America by German immigrants, but were originally seen as foreign or pagan and were condemned by American puritans. In the early 19th century, Christmas trees spread to European nobility. An image of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert has been widely credited with creating the Christmas tree craze among the more general population.
Mistletoe is a diverse order of evergreen parasitic vines that grows on several different trees throughout Europe, North America, North Africa, and Asia. Due to its ability to thrive in the winter months, mistletoe has been revered for thousands of years and has a variety of myths and traditions built up around it.
The ancient Celtic people would collect mistletoe growing on oak trees during their winter solstice ritual, with the Chief Druid climbing the oak and cutting down vines for people to hang up in their homes. They believed that mistletoe was so sacred it could not touch the ground, so it was caught in blankets as it was cut down from the tree tops. Mistletoe was believed to offer protection from evil, and was revered for its use as a medicine for epilepsy, ulcers, menstrual cramps, to increase fertility and as an antidote for poison (Native Americans also have a long tradition of using mistletoe as medicine.) In Norse mythology, mistletoe is the herb that killed and restored Baldur, son of the Goddess of love, Freya. To honor mistletoe, Freya bestows good luck and love on anyone who should walk under the plant.
The tradition of kissing beneath the mistletoe can be traced back to this Celtic association with fertility and Norse mythology. Modern tradition holds that refusing anyone a kiss beneath the mistletoe incurs bad luck, and for each kiss, a berry from the bundle must be plucked. Once all the berries are gone, the mistletoe no longer has the power to demand kisses.
Holly is a genus of evergreen trees, shrubs, and climbers. Common holly (Illex aquifolium) is the species that has become synonymous with winter, with its characteristic bright red berries and glossy leaves. Similar to a lot of the aforementioned plants, before holly was associated with Christmas, it was honored by the Celtic Druids and the ancient Romans. During the winter months, when deciduous trees lose their leaves, holly brings a splash of vibrant green and red, becoming a symbol of eternal life.
Like mistletoe, Holly was also hung as a ward of protection. It was believed by Celtic people that the undersides of their leaves were a place for faeries to find shelter and that the faeries would be kind to any homeowner who hung holly branches. To the Romans, Holly was an emblem of the agricultural god Saturn and was used as decoration during Saturnalia. Christians then continued the tradition of holly as a winter holiday decoration. Christian symbolism holds the red berries to represent Christ’s blood and the thorns to represent his crown during the crucifixion.
Kwanzaa, which takes place from December 21 to January 1, is a cultural holiday that celebrates African heritage. The word Kwanzaa is Swahili for “first fruits,” as this holiday takes inspiration from the many harvest celebrations of Africa.
Symbols of Kwanzaa, including a chalice and candle holder, are displayed prominently in households that honor the holiday. The first of the seven symbols of Kwanzaa is “Mazou” which means “crops.” A collection of fruits, vegetables, and nuts are placed on a traditional mat to represent the fruits of collective planning and work. Another symbol of Kwanzaa is “muhindi” which means corn, and is symbolic of the world’s children who will grow into the future. One kernel of corn is placed on the mat for each of the children in the household.
Poinsettias (Euphorbia pulcherrima) are indigenous to Mexico, especially Taxco del Alarcon where they flower during the winter. In Mexico, they are called Flor de Nochebuena (“Christmas Eve flower”) or Catarina.
These plants became associated with Christmas in the 16th century. Legend tells of the story of a young girl named Pepita, who was sad she could not afford to give a gift to Jesus for the Christmas celebration. She was then inspired to pick a bouquet of weeds from the side of the road. When she laid them on the altar in front of the church, they transformed into the bright red flower.
They take their English name from Joel Roberts Poinsett, first US Minister to Mexico, who sent the plants to the US in 1822. The characteristic bright red bracts are often mistaken for petals, but are in fact, technically leaves. The obtain their color through a process called photoperiodism, which requires that the plant experience a period of darkness (a minimum of 12 hours for at least 5 days in a row) in order to change color. Additionally, they require bright light during the day to have a vivid color.
Amaryllis are flowering bulbs native to south and Central America and the Caribbean. They are often given as holiday gifts because they bloom around the holiday season when kept indoors. Red and white are popular colors for Christmas, but they also come in pink, purple, yellow, and orange.
The amaryllis plant gets its name from Greek Mythology, where the maiden Amaryllis was in love with the handsome young shepherd with a passion for flowers named Alteo. Unsure how to win Alteo’s heart, Amaryllis consulted the Oracle at Delphi. On the Oracle’s order, Amaryllis stood in front of Alteo’s house for 30 days piercing her heart with a golden arrow. On the last day, a flower grew from her spilled blood that helped her win the heart of her love. This story, as well as the plant’s strong upright stems have made it a symbol of determination, strength, beauty, and love.
Paperwhites are flowers in the narcissus genus that are native to the Mediterranean region and are frequently forced to bloom indoors in the winter. Unlike other species of the Narcissus family, they don’t require a chilling period to bloom, and are therefore considered easy plants to grow indoors for winter interest. They are also the most fragrant of the flowers in the narcissus genus. Their white color is evocative of winter’s snow, which is another reason for this plant’s association with winter holidays.
Shlumbergera are a genus of 6 species of cactus native to the coastal mountains of Brazil. They are epiphytic, which means they grow on the surface of other plants, in this case trees. In the North, they are known for their ability to thrive as houseplants and for blooming around the holiday season. There are varieties that bloom in fall and winter, “Thanksgiving Cactus” and “Christmas Cactus” respectively, which often get confused and are mislabeled by sellers.
The use of mint flavoring at Christmas time is due to the ever popular candy cane, whose origins can be traced back to soothing sugar sticks used in 17th century German churches. Before pacifiers, parents would give their fussy children sugar sticks and in the 1670s, one pastor gave out these treats during Christmas services, bending them into the shape of the shepherd’s staff. These canes became popular in Christmas services all over Europe, evolving into different tastes, and eventually becoming the red and white striped mint candy canes that we know today. The colors are common Christmas colors and the peppermint flavor leaves a tingling sensation evocative of the winter’s cold.