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GardenSMART :: Why Holly, Ivy, and Mistletoe are Christmas Traditions

Why Holly, Ivy, and Mistletoe are Christmas Traditions

By Therese Ciesinski, GardenSMART

In December, we celebrate the holidays by decorating the inside and outside of our homes with wreaths, garlands and cuttings of evergreen plants. While we consider them a beautiful and integral part of Christmas, the use of these plants in rituals and celebrations goes back to pre-Christian times. Pagan peoples such as the Druids, Norse, and Celts observed the winter solstice and the Romans the holiday of Saturnalia. For them, the plants had spiritual significance and were believed to hold magic.

To our ancestors struggling to survive another winter, plants that stayed green even in the cold and dark represented the triumph of life over death and light over darkness. Through the centuries they were incorporated into Christian traditions, and now are an inseparable part of our Christmas observations.

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Few would ascribe magical properties to them today; we use them simply as seasonal decorations. However, like our ancestors, we take pleasure in their green aliveness as we also wait for the days to lengthen and warmth to return.

Here's a bit of trivia on three evergreen plants that have become associated with Christmas:

Holly (Ilex): In Celtic lore, the Holly King ruled over the winter, until he was beaten at the winter solstice by the King of the Oaks, who ruled summer. Holly wood was strong and burned well. In Europe, the plant was believed to protect a house from lightning and was considered good luck overall, which was why branches were brought indoors. Though it was once used medicinally to treat rheumatism, bronchitis and gout, be warned: holly leaves and berries are toxic to both humans and animals.

Today, we deck the halls in boughs of holly. In Christian tradition, the sharp, pointed holly leaves are reminders of Christ's crown of thorns, and the red berries the blood that he shed.

The Christmas carol, "The Holly and the Ivy," first appeared in the early 18th century. In the song, the holly represents Jesus Christ and the ivy his mother Mary:

The holly and the ivy
When they are both full grown
Of all the trees that are in the woods
The holly bears the crown. The holly bears a blossom,
As white as the lily flower,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ,
To be our sweet Saviour.

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English Ivy (Hedera helix): What exasperates many gardeners about English ivy – its tenaciousness, its habit of reappearing after being cut back or pulled out – is why it was revered by ancient religions. The vine was admired for its life force, not only because its leaves stayed green, but in its ability to survive. In early times, ivy was associated with the feminine, and holly with the masculine.

English ivy is native to Europe, Russia and Scandinavia. It was introduced to the U.S. around 1727. While it was – and is – valued as a landscape plant, it has spread so uncontrollably that it has been declared invasive in 15 states. Though forever linked to holly and thereby to Christmas by the carol "The Holly and the Ivy," it is not used as a decoration as often as it used to be. It is most often found in wreaths and garlands, entwined with other greens.

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Mistletoe (Viscum album) is better-known as a Christmas decoration in Britain than America, and was especially popular during Victorian times. The Druids thought the plant had magical powers, keeping ghosts and witches away from a house. It was associated with fertility. Refusing to kiss when standing under the mistletoe was considered bad luck. Lore says Christ's crucifix was supposedly made from mistletoe wood.

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Mistletoe is a parasitic plant; it attaches itself to trees and sucks water and minerals from them. The berries are toxic to humans and animals, which is why when we buy a sprig of mistletoe today, the leaves might be real, but the berries are plastic or wax.

While many people prefer to take down their Christmas decorations right after the 25th, others do as people did in earlier times, and leave the greenery up until either Twelfth Night, January 5th, or Epiphany (also called Feast of the Three Kings) on January 6th.


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