Christmas plants

Information sheet

Use this information sheet to find out where popular Christmas plants have come from and the stories behind their significance.

 

  • School term: Late Autumn
  • Level of experience: No experience needed
  • Subject(s): Science, History

Holly

Holly is considered to be a lucky plant and to have healing powers but is still little used medicinally today.  Traditionally it was planted near the house to protect the family living there. 
Druids decorated their dwellings with holly and berries.  The greenness of holly during the bleak winter months signified the fact that the gods kept life going, and from the red berries came the hope of growth and harvest for the next seasons.
Interestingly, early Christians identified the prickles on the leaves with the crown of thorns, and the berries with blood of Christ – a reminder of His untimely death but not used in Easter celebrations!

Ivy

Grown by the Greeks and the Romans, ivy was regarded as the feminine plant to complement the masculinity of the holly.  In Roman times it was used to honour the spirit of merry making but because it was associated with Bacchus and drunkenness,  it was banned from Christian homes.  More recently ivy growing against the wall of a house was said to guard against witches.  It was also considered to have magical and healing powers.

Mistletoe

Almost the one that got away!  Regarded as a holy plant by the druids, this led to it being banned from inside Christian churches.  In Norse mythology a bough of mistletoe was used to slay Balder, the god of peace. It was then entrusted to the goddess of love, and kissing under it became compulsory.
Many other countries moved away from using mistletoe at Christmas, but Britain has stuck firmly to this pagan tradition.
Mistletoe was considered lucky with healing and protective powers.  Hanging mistletoe in your doorway showed goodwill towards your visitors whilst kissing beneath it was a pledge of friendship. 

Rosemary and Bay

These are two evergreen herbs associated with pagan winter festivals that were popular before Puritans banned Christmas celebrations in the 17th Century.  Bay was used in honour of the spirit of merriment (like ivy) and rosemary was popular because it was the sign of remembrance.

Christmas Cacti

These are jungle plants that flower in the winter.  In their first year, bought from the shop in bud, they will flower at Christmas.  But be warned, commercial growers are very clever at achieving this.  In following years, the plants are more likely to flower later in the spring term.  There is little tradition about them except for their alleged time of flowering. 

Poinsettias

Like many things, commercial poinsettias have been developed in the USA, coming originally from wild, two metre high shrubs found in Mexico.  They have increased enormously in popularity in the last 30 years as production techniques have improved and cheap air transport has become available.
Poinsettias are grown by limiting their daylight hours (10 hours light & 14 hours dark) and are treated with a dwarfing chemical to limit their height. 

Christmas Trees

The Christmas tree culture has only been with us since the 19th Century but trees have played a significant part in festivals and rituals since pagan times when evergreen trees such as yew were decorated with gifts or offerings to various gods.  It is believed that many early churches were built on ancient ceremonial sites that already had well established yew trees growing on them. 
During Saturnalia the Romans fixed candles, small ornaments and masks of Bacchus (Roman god of wine) to pine trees.  In Scandinavia trees were decorated with apples and cake to honour Odin. Fir trees were decorated in Germany as early as the 17th Century as part of the Christmas celebrations.
It was Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria, who really brought the concept of the Christmas tree to this country.  Influenced by his German childhood, he included a decorated tree in the royal Christmas decorations of 1841, thus popularising the idea.  The British public was fascinated and since then the popularity of Christmas trees has grown almost annually.

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