Larry Hodgson has published thousands of articles and 65 books over the course of his career, in both French and English. His son, Mathieu, has made it his mission to make his father’s writings available to the public. This article was originally published in the newspaper Le soleil on December 18, 2005.
You can’t have Christmas without plants. They’re so much a part of tradition that you can’t get away from them. Let’s take a look at the history of Christmas plants and the legends surrounding them.
The Fir Tree
The Christmas tree is an old Germanic tradition dating back to well before the time of Christ. According to the beliefs of the Nordic tribes, winter, with its shortening days and trees losing their leaves, represented the death of the world, but with the right rituals and sacrifices, it was possible to turn the tide and bring it back to life. So they celebrated Yul, the Festival of Renewal, as soon as the days began to lengthen, which was around Christmas.
The fir tree was at the center of their festivities: as it kept its needles even in this period of “death”, it represented immortality. So they decorated the trees with ribbons and candles for this festival. With time, the festival of the Yul and the Christmas festival became one and the tradition of the decorated tree became one of Christmas, especially in Alsace. German mercenaries are said to have brought the tradition to North American soil.
Here is another old European tradition, but this time of Celtic origin. The holly tree was also winter-hardy and, moreover, its red fruits were poisonous. The Druids particularly venerated poisonous plants, which were very powerful in their eyes. With the arrival of Christianity, this plant became part of the Christmas celebration.
Legend has it that until the arrival of Jesus, the fruits of the holly tree were white. The holly was used to make Jesus’s crown of thorns and the blood of the latter would have colored the fruit red. Since then, all holly trees have red fruits in memory of the passion and the love of Christ and they’re used to decorate houses. But beware, in France, it is believed that you should never bring holly branches into the house before December 23, otherwise something bad will happen.
Here’s a tradition that’s clearly losing ground. It’s been almost 20 years since I’ve seen mistletoe in the shops at Christmas… And without mistletoe, we can’t follow the old tradition that when a man and a woman meet under a mistletoe branch, they have to kiss. We do see some plastic mistletoe branches, but they lack the charm of the real thing.
It’s simply a supply problem. Mistletoe (Viscum album) is a parasitic plant that lives on trees in Europe and grows strictly in the wild; it can’t be cultivated. However, with modern forestry techniques mistletoe is removed as soon as it appears and it’s therefore rarer than in the past. Mistletoe is still harvested commercially in Europe, but only for the local market. There isn’t enough left for export!
Originally, mistletoe was considered the most sacred plant by the Druids, a plant to be respected at all costs; otherwise it would bring misfortune. This was so true that when enemies met in a forest and realized that they were fighting under mistletoe branches, they had to put down their weapons and observe a truce until the next day. Gradually, this truce between enemies turned into an embrace between the sexes. Note that in the Anglo-Saxon tradition, we kiss under the mistletoe at Christmas. In France, it is on New Year’s Day, hence the saying “au gui l’An neuf” (“to the mistletoe the New Year”).
Here’s a legend that comes from Mexico, the country of origin of the poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima). The poinsettia was originally planted by the Aztecs who saw in its blood red “flowers” a symbol of purity (for them, blood was purifying). The Spanish priests first fought against this “cursed plant” before finally accepting with regret the deep-rooted tradition and giving it a more Catholic meaning.
Thus was born the following legend: A young boy wanted to visit the baby Jesus, but had no gift to give him. For lack of anything better to do, he cut some apparently dead branches to present to Jesus. But when he placed his bouquet in front of the baby, a miracle happened. The branches were covered with red flowers, poinsettia flowers, and the baby Jesus smiled. Since then, the poinsettia always blooms at Christmas.
The Christmas Cactus
The following legend comes from Brazil, home of the Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera truncata). A young boy who lived in the Amazon jungle prayed to God to give him a little sign of Christmas in his hot and stuffy world. On Christmas Day, he woke up to find that the jungle had been filled with flowers overnight. The cacti that grew on the branches of the surrounding trees had all begun to bloom at the same time. Moreover, with their drooping habit, they were reminiscent of Christmas bells. And so yet another legend was born!
In Argentina, where amaryllis (Hippeastmm spp.) bloom wild at Christmas, the following legend is told. In his excitement to announce the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, the archangel dropped his trumpet. As the trumpet fell to the ground, it turned into a beautiful trumpet-shaped flower. Since then, the amaryllis always blooms at Christmas to announce the birth of Christ.
Until the 21st century, rosemary was often used to make Christmas wreaths and garlands. It’s a tradition that’s being revived, at least a little, because for the past three or four years, garden centers have been selling rosemary plants in the form of a Christmas tree. With their narrow, needle-like leaves, they do the job well.
It might be time to resurrect the following old legend. Rosemary, the legend goes, originally had white flowers. Then, before entering the stable to give birth to Jesus, Mary placed her blue cloak on the small rosemary bush planted at the door and the color faded. Since then, the rosemary always blooms blue.
By the way, did you know that “rosemary”, rosmarinus in Latin, means “rose of Mary” (“ros” and “mari”)?