Fun Facts & History About Winter Holiday Plants

Written by Kelsey W.

In many homes around Southern California, the winter holiday season is made beautiful with classic plants like mistletoe, poinsettias, and Christmas trees. 

These plants inspire the classic colors of red and green that appear everywhere, from the famous Starbucks “red cup” to the green and red bulletin boards at schools and workplaces. 

But is there a deeper meaning to the plants we commonly display on our porches and in our living rooms and the décor they influence?

If you’ve never checked out the history of Christmas trees or why we use mistletoe, you may find the following quite interesting.

Why is Mistletoe a Christmas Tradition?

Like many of the familiar traditions of Christmas, mistletoe is a plant used symbolically centuries before modern times. We commonly hang it from archways and doors in the winter, and the practice is to kiss whoever is standing with you under the mistletoe. Some families simply hug the other person standing under the mistletoe.

A Norse myth about the mistletoe plant says a goddess named Frigg lost her son in a fight when someone shot him with an arrow made from mistletoe. In her sadness, she vowed that no one else would ever die from mistletoe and that, instead, the plant would kiss whoever walked beneath it.

There is also evidence that the ancient druids of Britain considered mistletoe a sacred plant because it would bloom in the winter when everything else seemed to die off or hibernate for the season. The druids considered mistletoe a restorative plant that could help various ailments like infertility.

Today, holiday celebrations often include mistletoe hung somewhere in the room, and couples are encouraged to kiss underneath the plant. This modern mistletoe tradition started in the 1700s in England with the lower class but soon spread throughout the United Kingdom to the upper echelons of society as a holiday ritual.

What do Holly and Ivy Mean in Holiday Celebrations?

Like mistletoe, holly is a plant that was commonly used by ancient people for various celebrations and was eventually brought into the traditions of Christmas in modern times. One of the first instances of holly being used during the winter season was in pagan times when people used holly to ward off evil spirits.

For Christians, holly has a deeper meaning. Its pointed, sharp leaves are meant to represent the thorns in the crown worn by Jesus, and the berries are meant to represent his blood. The plant is known as “christdorn” in Germany, which means “Christ thorn.” Some also suggest that the evergreen color of the holly is meant to represent the concept of everlasting life in Christianity.

In some holiday celebrations, you’ll also see ivy paired with holly, where holly represents Jesus and ivy represents his mother, the Virgin Mary. There’s a traditional Christmas carol from Britain called “The Holly and the Ivy,” which was written in the 1800s but based on the medieval tradition of using holly and ivy to represent Jesus and Mary.

Holly is one of the more solemn symbols of the holiday season, but it’s a beautiful plant for December decorating whether you celebrate Christmas religiously or secularly. 

Ivy, too, is a beautiful plant for the holiday season, but it’s also a wonderful permanent part of your indoor décor since ivy makes an excellent houseplant. You may also transplant your indoor holiday ivy plant into a garden bed outside your home or along a wall where you’d like the ivy to climb.

Where Do Poinsettias Come from and What Makes Them Christmas Décor?

For many, the poinsettia is the ideal Christmas plant because it’s bright red and pairs beautifully with green Christmas trees and holiday wreaths. However, it’s not just the poinsettia’s beautiful red color that makes it a natural part of the holiday season.

The plant’s use during Christmas comes from a Mexican Christmas legend where a young girl named Pepita didn’t have a gift for the baby Jesus on Christmas eve. Pepita’s cousin told her that the gift didn’t have to be elaborate and that anything would do. 

With no money to spend, Pepita picked some weeds and fashioned them into a bouquet on her way to church. After she left the weeds at the nativity scene display at the church, they magically transformed into beautiful red flowers. The flowers were named “Flowers of the Holy Night” or “Flores de Noche Buena” in Spanish.

After learning about this legend and the significance of the poinsettia during Christmas in Mexico, the first U.S. ambassador to Mexico, Joel Poinsett, brought the plant back to the United States in the early 1800s. However, the plant didn’t become a perennial symbol of the holiday season until the 20th century, when an entrepreneur started selling them across the country.

Today, poinsettias are one of the most popular plants sold all year, and they’re everywhere in December when they’re used as decorations in schools, businesses, and homes all across the country. If you love your December poinsettia, did you know you can keep it alive all year? New Mexico State University shares a complex yet rewarding method for keeping your poinsettia alive all year.

Why do we use Christmas Trees to Celebrate the Holidays?

Christmas trees are a worldwide and universal symbol of the holidays, and you’ll commonly find beautiful trees decorated in the most religious homes just as often as you might in non-Christian homes. 

Let’s face it: Christmas trees are beautiful. Decorating them is fun whether you celebrate the deeper meaning of the Christian holiday or just love watching Christmas movies on the Hallmark Channel in December with a cup of hot cocoa and surrounded by holiday decorations.

The use of evergreen trees as a decorative symbol in the winter predates the arrival of Christianity, much like mistletoe. Ancient people celebrated the evergreen nature of certain plants because the plants could survive the long dark nights and the cold without losing their green branches.

Several ancient societies used greenery to celebrate the winter solstice, with the Egyptians using green palm rushes to decorate their homes and early Romans using evergreen boughs to decorate their homes and celebrate Saturnalia, a celebration of agriculture and the return of spring.

The modern use of Christmas trees in December started in Germany in the 1500s when Christians decorated Christmas pyramids rather than Christmas trees. They covered the pyramids with candles and evergreen branches. Eventually, the tradition transformed into the use of trees rather than wooden pyramids.

Amazingly, Christmas trees were once considered a pagan ritual by Americans when the population was introduced to the concept in the 1800s. However, it wasn’t long before the tradition became popular in the United States. By the early 20th century, Christmas trees were a common part of December celebrations and they remain a beautiful part of holiday decorations today.

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