University of Vermont Extension 
Department of Plant and Soil Science

Winter Holiday News Article


Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont

The holly and the ivy, mistletoe, and laurel are greens (plants or plant leaves) we see everywhere over the holidays.  Their use, and traditions associated with their use, dates back hundreds of years.  All were signs in winter of hope and rebirth to come.

The laurel with its wide, dark green leaves that are spicy-fragrant when crushed, is native to the Mediterranean.  Before cut greens began to be used, the Romans would bring potted laurel trees indoors during winter.  More important than their value for decorating was the belief that these plants sheltered gods of growth and rejuvenation.  By having laurel indoors, it was believed one could tap into these godly powers.

The Romans first, and later the Christians, began to deck their halls with boughs of holly as it was believed to have protective powers.  It was often hung on doors to chase away evil sprits, or else to catch them with the prickly leaves.  The Romans also considered holly sacred, a good omen, representing immortality, and sheltering elves and faeries. This latter belief may have come even earlier from the Teutonic tribes to the north.  Romans gave holly for gifts during the festival of Saturnalia-- a week-long party based partly on earlier Greek and Egyptian solstice festivals.  .

The early Christians in Rome decorated their homes with holly as well, and it gradually became a Christmas symbol as Christianity became the main religion.  To the Christians, the holly with its prickly leaves represented the crown of thorns on Jesus, and their red berries the blood he shed.

The song "The Holly and the Ivy" has its roots in an English tradition from the Middle Ages.  The soft ivy was twined around the more prickly holly in arrangements.  Not only was this for aesthetic purposes, but the holly symbolized males and the ivy females, and their combination a good-natured rivalry between the two.

The use of ivy as a decoration once again dates back to Roman times, when it became associated with Bacchus--the god of good times and revelry.  It symbolized prosperity and charity, and so for early Christians was used during Christmas-- a time to celebrate good times and to provide for the less fortunate.  If ivy was growing on the outside of houses, it was thought to prevent misfortune.  If it died, though, this was a sign of approaching financial problems.

Mistletoe occupies a fascinating place in the folklore of many early cultures, especially those of northern Europe, Scandinavia, and the British Isles. A botanical curiosity, mistletoe is the only complete plant that is a true parasite, often killing the hardwood tree it infests.  For this reason, it was credited with magical properties by ancient societies and held sacred.

The Druids made great use of the plant in celebrations.  In a ceremony held five days past the New Moon following the winter solstice, Druid priests would climb an oak tree and cut down the mistletoe.  Crowds below would catch it in outstretched robes, as even a single sprig hitting the ground would bring bad luck.  Catching it, on the other hand, was believed to bring fertility for animals.

In ancient Scandinavia, mistletoe was believed to symbolize peace.  If enemies happened to meet under trees with mistletoe, they would disarm and call a truce for the day.  With our images of rough Norse soldiers, this paints an interesting and seemingly unlikely picture!

Mistletoe also grows in the warmer climates of this country, and was used as medicine by the native Americans.  Also known as "allheal", they used it to treat dog bites, toothache and measles.

So where does the custom of kissing under the mistletoe come from?  Many believe it is an English custom, which dictates that after each kiss, one of its white berries must be plucked from the bunch and discarded.  When the berries are all gone, the kissing must stop.  Needless to say, bunches with many berries were highly sought.

The custom of kissing dates back much further though, once again to Scandinavian mythology.  An arrow made of mistletoe killed Balder, the son of Frigga who was the Norse goddess of love.  Her tears, falling on the mistletoe, turned into white berries.  In her sorrow she decreed that mistletoe would never again be used for death, but rather for  love.  Whomever should stand beneath it should receive a kiss.

It was perhaps during the Victorian era in America that the fir and pine we commonly use today became popular.  These, together with hemlock, yew, bay, and the more historic greens, were made into lavish arrangements.  Another tradition of the 19th century was to use these to form wreaths, stars, and crosses to decorate graves at Christmas.  These greens were later brought home to enjoy through the rest of the winter, just as we do now during the holidays.

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