Poinsettias are native to Mexico, but Jan Nelson remembers visiting her sister in Hawaii and seeing red poinsettias everywhere. The climate is too cold in the Santa Cruz Mountains for poinsettias to grow here. Courtesy photo

We all celebrate the holidays in different ways.
Each family has its own traditions and warm memories from years gone by. Some of us celebrate Christmas, some Hanukkah, and some Kwanzaa. Many of our traditional Christmas customs originate from winter solstice celebrations.
The plants associated with each are an important part of their tradition and symbolism.
The winter solstice is the 21st of December. Solstice literally means “sun stands still,” and for a few days around this time of year, the sun appears to be motionless in the sky.
Nearly all cultures and faiths have some sort of winter solstice celebration. They have been with us for thousands of years, starting at the beginning of agriculture among people who depended on the return of the sun.
We have incorporated many of the plants from traditional winter solstice celebrations into our own: holly, ivy, evergreens, rosemary, mistletoe and poinsettia. How did this come about?
Holly remains green throughout the year, when deciduous trees, such as the oak, shed their leaves. Decorating with it throughout the home has long been believed to bring protection and good luck.
Placing a ring of holly on doors originated in Ireland, where holly, with its red berries, was one of the main plants that were green and beautiful at this time of year.
Norseman and Celts used to plant a holly tree near the home to ward off lightning strikes. The crooked lines of holly leaves gave rise to its association with lightning, and in fact, holly does conduct lighting into the ground better than most trees.
Like other evergreens, ivy symbolizes immortality and eternal life. In England, it is traditionally used in kissing balls with holly and mistletoe. It has also stood for fidelity, healing and marriage.
Ancient Romans thought it brought good luck and joy. It was worn as a crown or fashioned into wreaths or garlands.
Evergreen trees play a role in solstice celebrations. Early Romans and Christians considered the evergreen a symbol of the continuity of life.
Fir, cedar, pine boughs and wreaths were used to decorate homes, and small gifts were hung from the branches in groves. This may have been where the Christian tradition of decorating an evergreen tree or Yule tree in December originated.
Other sacred trees of the solstice are yew, birch, arborvitae and ash.
We often see rosemary plants trained into a Christmas tree shape. Rosemary is evergreen in the winter and blooms at the same time, making it the perfect plant for the holidays. Traditionally rosemary was spread on floors at Christmas. As people walked over the herb, the fragrant scent was released and filled the home with blessings and protection.
How did our enduring fascination with mistletoe get started? From earliest times, it has been one of the most magical, mysterious and sacred plants in Greek, Celtic, Scandinavian, English and European folklore in general.
The Druids believed the mistletoe’s magical powers extended beyond fertility. It was believed to cure almost any disease and was know as the “all healer.” Sprigs fixed above doorways of homes were said to keep away lightning and other types of evil. Because the plant has no roots, it was believed that it grew from heaven.
Kissing under the mistletoe probably came from the Greek and Roman belief that it bestowed fertility and had life-giving power.
In Scandinavia, it was considered a plant of peace, under which enemies could declare a truce or fighting spouses could kiss and make up.
However this tradition originated, it’s a good one.
Yule log
The Yule log dates back to the Saxons and Celts.
In these societies, oak trees represented strength, endurance, protection and good luck. The oak was the most sacred tree of Europe.
On the eve of the winter solstice, the longest night of the year, people would keep a huge oak log burning for 12 hours. They would toss oak twigs and acorns into the fire, shout out their hopes and resolutions for the coming year and sing Yuletide carols.
A piece of the Yule log was saved to start the fire the following year.
It’s traditional for us to have some poinsettias in the house for the holidays, but they have a much shorter history in European tradition than other plants, because the poinsettia is native to Mexico.
In the 1820s, Joel Roberts Poinsett, a South Carolina diplomat, became an ambassador to Mexico. In 1828, Poinsett found a beautiful shrub with large red flowers growing next to a road. He took cuttings and carried them back to his greenhouse in South Carolina.
Because the leaves turn bright red around Christmas time, these flowering shrubs have been used as decorations for the holidays ever since.
Other traditions
Traditional plants symbolic of Hanukkah are the citron, myrtle twigs, willow twigs and palm fronds. The four species are waved together, accompanied by special blessings, as part of the synagogue service or at home.
Kwanzaa, another celebration of light, features harvest foods: ears of corn, fruit and nuts. The holiday is a secular celebration observed during the last week of December to celebrate the “fruit” or accomplishments coming out of the year of labor.
Around the world, holiday celebrations have their own special meaning. With friends and family, embrace your traditions and have a wondrous holiday.
Jan Nelson, a landscape designer and California certified nursery professional, will answer questions about gardening in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Email her at [email protected], or visit www.jannelsonlandscapedesign.com to view past columns and pictures.

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