Column: The plants of the holidays

Published 11:11 am Thursday, December 23, 2004

By Staff
Though we have a couple days to go, I think it's safe to say we're going to have a wonderfully white Christmas this year. I presume by now your house is gaily furnished with nature's traditional Holiday plants. The tree is up and decorated, the holly strung, mistletoe hung and poinsettia plants on display. But why do we bring fire hazard trees into our house, put sharp, picky holly leaves on the wall, hang parasitic plants with poisonous berries from the doorway and stick some bush from Mexico that doesn't even have a noticeable flower on our coffee tables? The answer, of course, is that we're good Christians keeping with Christmas tradition. Do you know, though, that most of these plants stem from pagan, pre-Christian rituals?
Even Dec. 25, Christmas day, reportedly has an association with paganism.
I'm certainly no religious scholar, but I understand early churches didn't celebrate Christ's birthday and we have no idea when he was really born. However, the winter solstice, which is the shortest day of the year falling on or near Dec. 21, was celebrated by nearly all pagan religions. Some brilliant Christian figured why not declare this the time of Christ's birthday as well? The pagans would be all gathered, whooping it up with their solstice celebrations which would provide the best opportunity to convert them to Christianity en masse. Hence Christmas and Dec. 25 were forever entwined.
Well, maybe. So whats the scoop with the Christmas tree? Many ancient cultures worshipped trees for various reasons. Egyptians had their palm trees, early Greeks and Romans honored the fir tree and German tribes worshiped the oak tree as part of the winter solstice ritual. Along about the 8th century some zealous Christian was making headway in converting the German heathens so he cut down their most sacred oak tree. In its place grew a fir tree. That was good enough for the pagan Germans. Always in for a good party, they decorated it all up and embraced Christmas. Needless to say, their idea caught on.
Then there's mistletoe. This was a sacred plant of the ancient Celtic Druid cult. Mistletoe is a parasitic plant growing high amongst the branches of a variety of host trees. The Druids believed mistletoe fell from heaven and grew onto the tree where it landed. It represented the joining of earth and heaven and their God's reconciliation with mankind. Kissing under the mistletoe represented man's acceptance of the Druid God. Pagan Scandinavians worshiped mistletoe in a more practical perspective. For them it was a symbol of Frizza, the goddess of peace and love. They figured kissing under the mistletoe on the cold, dark days of the winter solstice would promote love and marriage. They really had something there. Any warm bed when it's pitch black, snow waist deep to a tall Swede, 20 below and no electric blanket. Christians of the Middle Ages felt this a bit too kinky and banned mistletoe but something that good can't be suppressed long and it was eventually reinstated as a bona fide Christmas ritual.
Holly in the house was originally embraced by pre-Christian Romans, believing it provided shelter for elves and fairies.
Christians, rather than fighting tradition, took the easy way out by saying the sharp, pointed leaves represented Christ's thorn crown and the red berries his blood. That was easy enough.
As for poinsettia plants, they're newcomers. Poinsettias, named in the early 1800's after Joel Poinset, the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, are native to Mexico and Central America. As the story goes, an indigent Mexican waif was en route to pay Christmas homage to Christ. He had no gift so he picked a bunch of road side weeds and, in true miracle fashion, the weeds transformed into beautiful poinsettias.
Old Joel, presumably to nourish his ego, launched an extensive campaign promoting his namesake worldwide as "the Christmas Flower." He was very successful and today the poinsettia is rated the most common houseplant. The plant's showy red color by the way, are not flowers, but bracts, which are colored leaves at the base of the flower. The flower itself is barely noticeable.
So, Christian or pagan, who cares? It's Christmas, be happy. Carpe diem.