University of Vermont Extension
Winter (Holiday) News
Department of Plant and Soil Science
THE HISTORY OF HOLIDAY GREENS
Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension
University of Vermont
people usher in the holiday season by decorating their homes with
boughs, sprigs of holly, garlands, and mistletoe. Although now
a Christmas tradition, writer Lisa Halvorsen explains how this
practice is not
something recent, dating back many centuries.
Greeks and Romans were among the first to bring evergreen boughs
winter. They were amazed that the evergreen remained green
even during the bleak winter months, and decided that it must have
powers. To them it symbolized nature and the promise of spring when
earth would be verdant again.
In the 1800s, greens were used in this country
to make memorials to honor loved ones who had died. Evergreen
other greens were woven into wreaths, crosses, and stars and placed
in cemeteries. During the Victorian era, the custom of bringing
boughs and other greens into the house at Christmastime was
people made elaborate arrangements for mantelpieces and tables using
ivy, laurel, yew, and hemlock.
under the mistletoe, another popular American custom, came from
where according to mythology, Balder, the son of Frigga, the Norse
love, was struck dead by an arrow made of mistletoe. As Frigga
tears fell onto the mistletoe and turned into small, white berries.
declared that mistletoe should no longer be used to kill, but to
love. Thus, anyone found standing beneath the mistletoe must be
also played an important role in the Druid celebrations of the
solstice. Because it appeared to grow in the air--the plant wound
around the tree, its roots never touching the soil--the Druid high
priests believed that
it was a sacred plant. During the solstice, they would climb the
cut down the mistletoe, and toss it to the crowd below. It was
bad luck if even a single sprig touched the ground. Catching the
mistletoe ensured that livestock would be fertile and reproduce.
and ivy often are used together in holiday decorations, a tradition
from a Middle Ages belief that holly was male and ivy female, and so
should be intertwined forever. Holly also was thought to have
powers, while ivy stood for love.
tradition of decorating evergreen trees for the holidays began with
Luther in the early 1500s. Legend has it that he was walking
woods one Christmas Eve and noticed how the sparkly stars shone
branches of a snow-covered fir. Wanting to share the magic with his
children, he chopped down the tree and brought it home. He
with candles to represent the stars.
1600s, families in France decorated fir trees with gold foil, paper
apples, and sweet treats at Christmastime. German immigrants
same tradition with them when they settled in America. However,
trees did not become widespread in America until the 1800s.
first sold commercially in New York City in 1851, it wasn't until
later, when President Franklin Pierce placed the first tree in the
that many Americans adopted the tradition. Electric Christmas tree
were invented in 1882 by Edward Johnson, Thomas Alva Edison's
year, as you deck your halls with holiday greens, think of the
these traditions and of the many before you who incorporated greens
rituals and celebrations.