The Plants of Yuletide: History & Lore of Evergreens

Throughout the world, there are so many wonderful traditions celebrated this time of year that involve plants, but especially evergreens! Do you ever wonder where these origins came from and think about why we do some of these things like bring a tree into our home to decorate it? Well this is something we were curious about too, and decided to take a little deeper look into some of these traditions and how they came about to be.

The evergreens are rich with symbolic meaning during the holiday season, carrying with it traditions that have been practiced for hundreds of years! Some of our most noticeable celebrated evergreens are Mistletoe, Holly, and the Fir tree; all of which have an ancient history which carries a lot of meaning and symbology.

FIR TREE (Pseudotsuga spp.)

Evergreen trees such as the Fir tree (Pseudotsuga – among many other species) have a long history and symbolism, particularly due to their ability to stay green during the cold winter months while most other plants are bare or die off. This is a symbol of everlasting life, that even throughout the darkest time of the year when everything else is dying or hibernating, that life continues on.

For centuries, ancient people have celebrated the Winter Solstice in hopes for the Sun god to be well and return for Summer to bring back life. The early Romans celebrated the solstice during a festival called the Saturnalia to worship Saturn, the god of agriculture and would decorate their temples and homes with boughs from Evergreen trees. Often the boughs of Fir trees were used to decorate doors to celebrate the Winter Solstice, which may lead to why we hang wreaths on our doors today.

The tradition of bringing an actual Christmas tree into the home is thought to have started in Germany in the 16th century. It became a tradition to bring a Fir tree into the home and Martin Luther (a 16th century Protestant reformer) was believed to have started another tradition by lighting candles and stringing them into the trees. He was said to have been awed by the twinkling stars in the sky in the Evergreens and wanted to recapture this scene for his family.

The Christmas tree tradition was brought to America as early as the 1700’s by German settlers in Pennsylvania, but many viewed the tradition as Pagan and did not accept even hanging decorations or singing Christmas carols as this was seen as a mockery of a sacred day on December 25th. It wasn’t until late in the 19th century when there was an influx of German and Irish settlers that it started to become more mainstream and accepted. Around 1846 Queen Victoria, who was popular with her subjects, was depicted with her family under a Christmas tree which helped to popularize the tradition and created an acceptable fashion even into America.

MISTLETOE (Viscum album)

There are many different variations of Mistletoe (Viscum album) that have been used throughout the ages, as it can be found spread throughout the world in many places. It’s considered a parasitic evergreen that grows on different kinds of trees and shrubs such as Willow, Oak, Pine, Fir, Hawthorn and Apple. Have you ever wondered why it’s a tradition to kiss someone under a twig of Mistletoe?

One of the earlier stories of Mistletoe comes from the ancient Celtic Druid times where they valued Mistletoe for its ability to bloom in the winter. The Mistletoe shrub would still flourish with its green leaves while the trees were all bare; to them this represented everlasting life. The Druids would remove Mistletoe from Oaks, which were considered sacred trees, with a golden sickle in ceremony on the 6th day after the new moon. They considered Mistletoe to be a remedy to ensure fertility, which may be the origin of a romantic tradition over the years.

Another story of Mistletoe comes to us from Norse mythology. Frigg, the Goddess of Love, had a son, Baldur, who was prophesied to die, so she secured an oath from all of the animals and plants that they would not harm him. Unfortunately, she forgot to consult with Mistletoe.

Loki, the God of Mischief, used an arrow made from the Mistletoe to kill Baldur. As one version of the story goes, they were able to resurrect Baldur from the dead and so Frigg decided to make Mistletoe a symbol of love and would give all those who passed underneath it a kiss.

Even now kissing underneath the Mistletoe is popular in many European countries and North America as it was traditional in Europe to mean that it was a promise to marry, bring happiness and a long life. In the Middle Ages there was a custom where a berry would be plucked under the Mistletoe with each kiss and would stop once the berries were all gone.

HOLLY (Ilex aquifolium)

When I think of wintering plants and the holiday season I inevitably think of Holly (Ilex aquifolium) with its bright red berries and sharp glossy leaves that stand strong throughout winter. The Holly tree is an Evergreen native to most of central and southern Europe and can grow upwards to 50 feet. The beautiful berries have created an affordable way to decorate during the holidays all throughout the ages in places like Ireland where they flourish in winter.

Holly has its place in history among the Druids, Celtics, Pagans, and Christians where it’s full of myth, symbology and tradition. The Druids saw the Holly tree as a sacred symbol of protection against evil spirits. The berries also represented the menstrual blood of their Goddess. The boughs were cut and brought into the home as the leaves were thought to be magical and would bring back the spring.

The Ancient Celtics would place the leaves and branches around their doors and windows to also ward off the evil spirits. They believed that by bringing in parts of the Holly tree they would provide shelter for the woodland fairies who would in return bring good luck into their homes — but beware of cutting down a whole tree as this was considered to bring bad luck! In Celtic Mythology the Holly tree was considered the Evergreen twin of the Oak tree. The Oak tree controlled the light half of the year and the Holly controlled the dark winter months. Holly was associated with the Celtic and Norse gods of thunder since it has the same ability as Oak to resist lightning with the thorns on the leaves acting as conductors.

When studying ethnobotany and the history that surrounds certain plants, it’s always interesting to become aware of themes that we see cross-culturally. With Holly, we see both the Celts and the Druids considering it to be a plant of protection. From the astrological perspective, Holly would be considered a prime example of a plant ruled by Mars (sharp leaves, bright red berries). Mars is the archetype of the Warrior and protector, so this perfectly lines up with the stories and traditions surrounding this plant.

There are some sources that tell of Pagan Romans sending Holly branches to those important to them as a sign of a good wish for the New Year festivals.

One of the main stories of Holly in Christianity after it began to spread in Celtic Ireland was that the thorns were representative of the crown that Jesus wore on his crucifixion and the berries represented the blood that he spilled for the sins of mankind. The leaves were also thought to represent life after death. The tree has been called ‘Christ’s Thorn’ in different languages throughout northern countries in Europe such as Sweden and Norway.

There are so many traditions, stories, and mythologies surrounding our modern day celebrations. Its always inspiring learning where these traditions came from and how they still exist with us today, even though many of us may not consider the deeper meaning behind why we, for example, bring a tree into our home during the Christmas season. I feel like it’s important to remember this deeper symbolic meaning and to speak to our young ones about this so we can revive the why behind what we do, and thus hopefully revive a little bit more of the ceremony, sacredness, and deeper meaning of the holidays.

We’d love to hear if you have a particular plant, herb or tree that you celebrate this time of year!? How do you celebrate with it and how did that tradition come alive? Learning about these plants and their history can really deepen our understanding of how our ancestors used to connect with nature, teaching us to do the same and reigniting us back to our own ancestry too.

Sending warm holiday wishes and a happy Solstice from all of us here on the Evolutionary Herbalism team!

Written by Christine Young from the Evolutionary Herbalism team

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