Red Christmas Plant
holiday plants
(Image credit: serezniy)

The holiday season is a time to bring out your festive décor, whether new or treasured heirlooms. Along with the seasonal décor, many of us incorporate holiday plants traditionally given or grown during the season, but have you ever wondered how holiday plants became popular?

The history behind Christmas plants is as interesting as the plants themselves. The following holiday plant history answers these questions and delves into why we have Christmas plants.

Why Do We Have Christmas Plants?

The holidays are a time of giving and there is no nicer gift than that of a seasonal plant, but why do we have Christmas plants? Whose idea was it to decorate a Christmas tree, hang mistletoe, or deem the amaryllis a Christmas bloom?

It turns out that there are reasons for growing holiday plants and more often than not these reasons are centuries old.

History Behind Christmas Plants

Many of us bring families and friends together to decorate a Christmas tree, which then turns into the central gathering place in the home through the holiday season. This tradition began in Germany in the seventeenth century, the first record of a Christmas tree is in Strasburg in 1604. The tradition was brought to the United States through German immigrants and Hessian soldiers who fought for the British against the colonists.

The holiday plant history behind the Christmas tree is a bit murky, but historians have found that some northern Europeans believed that evergreens possessed godlike powers and symbolized immortality.

Some people believe the Christmas tree evolved from the Paradise tree during the Middle Ages. During this period, miracle and mystery plays were popular. One in particular was performed on December 24th and dealt with the fall of Adam and Eve and featured the Paradise Tree, an evergreen bearing red apples.

Some say the tradition began with Martin Luther during the sixteenth century. It is said that he was so awed by the beauty of evergreens that he cut one down, brought it home, and decorated it with candles. As Christianity spread, the tree became a Christian symbol.

Additional Holiday Plant History

For some, the holidays aren’t complete without a potted poinsettia or a sprig of mistletoe hung for a kiss. How did these holiday plants become popular?

  • Native to Mexico, poinsettias were once cultivated by the Aztecs for use as a fever medicine and to make a red/purple dye. After the Spanish conquest, Christianity became the religion of the region and poinsettias became Christian symbols used in rituals and nativity processions. The blooms were introduced to the U.S. by the United States Ambassador to Mexico and spread through the country from there.
  • Mistletoe, or the kissing plant, has a long history dating back to the Druids who believed the plant elicited health and good luck. Welsh farmers equated mistletoe with fertility. Mistletoe has also been used medicinally for a number of maladies, but the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe is derived from the age-old belief that doing so increased the potential of an upcoming marriage in the near future.
  • Sacred to the ancient Romans, holly was used to honor Saturn, the god of agriculture during the winter solstice, at which time the people gave each other holly wreaths. As Christianity spread, holly became a symbol of Christmas.
  • The holiday plant history of rosemary also dates back thousands of years, both the ancient Romans and Greeks believed the herb had healing powers. During the Middle Ages, rosemary was scattered upon the floor on Christmas Eve with the belief that those who smelled it would have a new year of health and happiness.
  • As for amaryllis, the tradition of growing this beauty is tied to St. Joseph’s staff. The story goes that Joseph was chosen to become the Virgin Mary’s husband after his staff sprouted amaryllis blooms. Today, its popularity stems from its low maintenance and ease of growing indoors during the winter months.
Amy Grant

Amy Grant has been gardening for 30 years and writing for 15. A professional chef and caterer, Amy's area of expertise is culinary gardening.