The Garden Gate: Christmas season plants have changed with the times

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By Ellen Probert Williamson
There is a remarkable variety in the plants which symbolize this glamorous season of the year. Some of them connect with very ancient traditions and customs and some of them are fairly new, such as the poinsettias, which have only been the customary Christmas plant for a couple of generations.

Ivy and mistletoe were sacred plants to the ancient Druids, and their uses as part of the annual midwinter festivals have been translated into our use as Christmas decorations. In the European calendar of flowers, holly is the symbol for December. In the Victorian language of flowers, holly indicated foresight and defense, and mistletoe symbolized good luck for a woman but bad luck for a man. To this day it is a most sacred plant in India.

Holly has also been an important plant for celebrations and festivals. Virgil refers to it often in his various writings by its Latin name, Ilex. There are hundreds of varieties of Ilex, or holly, and they are native to many areas of Europe, Asia, North and South America, the Canary Islands, Madiera and others.

Some varieties have red berries, some have prickly leaves and some are smooth. They may be green, or golden, or even variegated in hue. Holly and ivy are often used together and have great decorative effect this way. They have been immortalized this way in the old Christmas carol, “The Holly and the Ivy.”

It was a common belief during the Dark Ages that mistletoe did not grow from seeds, since it only occurs high up in trees and never on the ground.

Mistletoe was a sacred plant to the ancient Celtic and Teutonic peoples and was used in ceremonies by the Druids. Branches of it were hung in homes to ward off evil spirits. They are still used to decorate houses but are never used in churches because of the aura of paganism that still surrounds them.

In the Chinese flower calendar, the poppy is the symbol for December and the emblem of celebration and festivity.

All of the various varieties of evergreen trees are used for Christmas trees, a relatively modern custom introduced into England from Germany by Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s consort. Cedar trees are perhaps the most popular, possibly because of their wonderful aromatic scent.

Cedars are mentioned frequently in the Bible, and the famed Cedars of Lebanon are still as they were in Biblical times. (The temple of Jerusalem was built of cedar wood.) The twelve oldest and largest of the Lebanon cedars have been revered by every monotheistic religion. The Jewish people called them twelve friends of Solomon; Christians called them twelve apostles, and the Moslems saints, it has been believed for centuries that an evil fate will befall anyone who injures one of these famous ancient trees. Every year at the feast of the Transfiguration, the Greeks, Armenians and Mormons go on a pilgrimage to the Cedar Groves of Lebanon.

Spruces are also very popular for Christmas trees. They are members of the pine family, and the Latin name for them, pinaceae, comes from the Latin word pix, or pitch, and refers to the resin that is obtained from them.

Like the cedars, the spruces and pines are of many varieties, but all share in beauty and in their spicy scent, which always makes us think of holiday festivities.

Christmas cactus, or Christmas rose, as it is sometimes called, is still another winter flowering plant. The lovely arching branches tipped with satiny flower clusters in rose, white or pink dress up any room.

There are some beautiful Christmas cactus plants, as well as the several colors of the magnificent poinsettias, which were introduced into the United States by the then ambassador to Mexico, Joel Robert Poinsett in 1825.

They grow wild in Mexico, and Poinsett brought some of them back for his own garden in South Carolina. He gave some plants to various friends and to botanical gardens, and ever since his promotions of these colorful plants, poinsettias have had an increasing popularity and are now regarded as the official flower of the holiday season.

For many Christians the eternal circle of the Advent wreath is an important Christmas symbol. The four week period preceding Christmas, Advent, is a penitential period of prayer, and for some, fasting. The word Advent is derived from the Latin word, coming.

The observance of Advent began among the Lutherans in Germany during the 16th century and continues today in many churches worldwide.

Rosemary is newly popular as a Christmas plant, and these fragrant evergreen herbs, popular for centuries as the symbol of nostalgia, are popular to bring their own piney scent to the season.

So many plants lend color and festivity to the holiday scene, and the scents, sounds and color of Christmas everywhere delight us with their history and drama. How wonderful is this magical season, with its history, traditions and the outpouring of its joyous communications to one and all.