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Monday, February 6, 2023
Growing Together: Popular Christmas traditions – and plants – are steeped in history
"Blue Christmas" in winter Joanne Young

Mistletoe, poinsettias, holly and wassailing were not always part of our Christmas traditions. Here is a bit of history.

Mistletoe: The whole idea of mistletoe started in the days of the ancients Druids (around 3rd century BC). So, even before the era of Hallmark Christmas movies.

Druids believed mistletoe, especially a rare species that grew on oak trees, to have sacred powers, including the ability to heal illnesses, protect against nightmares and even predict the future.

The romantic act of kissing under the mistletoe is rooted in Norse mythology and the plant itself has had cultural significance for far longer. The berries were used to create an elixir that was believed to cure all poisons and make any person or animal fertile.

During the Roman era, enemies at war would reconcile their differences under the mistletoe, which to them represented peace. Romans also decorated their houses and temples with mistletoe in midwinter to please their gods.

In Victorian England, kissing under the mistletoe was serious business. If a girl refused a kiss, she shouldn’t expect any marriage proposals for at least the next year.

Today, we take a much more lighthearted approach to the tradition.

It should be mentioned, however, that the plant contains toxic amines – and eating its berries can cause vomiting and stomach pain. So, best to stick to kissing under it.

Poinsettia: How did a tall, gangly weed get to be the accepted official Christmas plant?

The poinsettia, a native of southern Mexico and Central America, is considered to be a tall, weedy plant in that climate. Definitely not the compact bushy plants that we have come to know.

So how did it become associated with Christmas? As the old Mexican legend goes, a young girl named Pepita was sad that she didn’t have a gift to leave for the baby Jesus at Christmas Eve services.

Her cousin tried to comfort her by saying Jesus would love anything that she brought for him even if she had no money to buy a real gift. Pepita picked a bouquet of weeds that she was walking past on the way to church.

When she got there, she set the weeds down at the bottom of the nativity scene. As the story goes, the weeds suddenly transformed into beautiful red flowers. From that day on, they became known as “Flores de Noche Buena” or “Flowers of the Holy Night.”

Poinsettias owe their common name to Joel R. Poinsett, who introduced them to the United States when he was the first American ambassador to Mexico, from 1825 to 1829.

Poinsett, who was an amateur botanist, noticed the euphorbias with red bracts growing wild in the hills of southern Mexico. He sent a few of the plants home to South Carolina for his personal collection, where he began propagating them in his greenhouses and giving them to friends and botanical gardens.

It still took about another 100 years before the poinsettia became a traditional holiday decoration when the Ecke family started promoting them. Paul Ecke Jr. sent free poinsettia plants to TV studios across the country, including “The Tonight Show” and Bob Hope’s holiday specials.

Eventually, the trend caught on, making them the familiar live Christmas decoration that they are today. Over many years, breeders have developed the plants so that they are much fuller, shorter growing varieties that come in array of different coloured bracts.

Holly: Long been used as a symbol of Christmas, holly was considered sacred by the ancient Romans. It was used to honour Saturn, god of agriculture, during their Saturnalia festival around the winter solstice.

The Romans gave each other holly wreaths and they would carry them in parades, decorating the images of Saturn with them. During the early years of the Christian religion in Rome, many Christians continued to deck their homes with holly to avoid detection and persecution by Roman authorities.

Gradually, holly became a symbol of Christmas as Christianity became the dominant religion of the empire.

Wassailing: Most of us are familiar with the Christmas song, “Here we go a wassailing among the leaves so green …”

If asked what “wassailing” is, we would most likely say that it is the tradition of going from house to house carolling, eating, drinking and visiting with friends.

But wassailing was originally an important part of a horticultural tradition in England, with a focus on apple orchards.

A group would gather around the biggest and best apple trees in the orchard. The wassailing, or blessing of the fruit trees, involved drinking and singing to the health of the trees in the hope that they would provide a bountiful harvest the next year.

People would then travel from orchard to orchard, carolling as they went. In each orchard, trees were selected, and cider or liquor was sprinkled over their root systems.

Along with singing, shouting, banging pots and pans, and even firing shotguns could be heard, making as much noise as possible to both waken the sleeping tree spirits and to frighten off any evil demons that might be lurking in the branches.

Whatever traditions you observe, make sure you take time to enjoy the season.

Joanne Young is a Niagara-on-the-Lake garden expert and coach. See her website at joanneyoung.ca.

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