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by Jo Saxton December 02, 2020
Historically, plants and herbs played a major role in daily life, and were used in seasonal and festive feasts, in good luck bouquets, or even hung around the house to ward off evil or to encourage wealth.
I love learning about plant folklore so I thought I’d delve into their winter and Christmas symbolism. This is by no means an exhaustive list but it does contains my favourites.
Closely related to another old English herb, Tansy, Costmary has much symbolism throughout history. Its name is derived from the Latin Costus, the root of which is used as a spice and a preserve, and 'Mary,' in reference to Our Lady. In the Middle Ages, the plant was widely linked to her name and was known in France as ‘Herbe Sainte-Marie’.
Due to its aroma and the taste of its leaves, Costmary was used to add add a spice flavour to winter ale, or wassail, hence its other name, ‘alecost’.
According to Christians, frankincense and myrrh were two of the gifts given by the Three Kings to the infant Jesus, the third being gold, as they were considered to be rare treasures. The three gifts had a spiritual meaning: frankincense (an incense) was a symbol of deity, myrrh (an embalming oil) was a symbol of death, and gold was a symbol of nobility. Sometimes more general meanings are given: frankincense symbolising prayer, myrrh symbolising suffering, and gold for virtue.
To Druids, holly was a sacred plant and a symbol of fertility and eternal life, and was thought to have magical powers. While other plants wilted in the winter weather, holly remained green and strong, its berries a brightly coloured red even in the harshest of wintry conditions. In Druid lore, cutting down a holly tree would bring bad luck. However, hanging the plant in homes was believed to bring good luck and protection. Holly was also thought to protect homes against lightning strikes.
The Romans associated holly with Saturn, the god of agriculture and harvest, and decked the halls with holly branches during the festival of Saturnalia. Their celebrations are believed to be the source of many of the traditions we now associate with Christmas.
Today, Christians have adopted the holly tree as a symbol for Christmas. The sharp leaves are said to symbolize the crown of thorns worn by Christ, while the berries represent his blood. Legend has it that holly berries were originally white, but that the blood Christ shed for the sins of mankind stained the berries red forever.
Ivy is quite a unique plant and so it has a lot of symbolism. It has an amazing ability to flourish in the shade and in poor light, which connects the plant to ideas of secrecy, debauchery and hidden desires. These associations led to it being removed from Christian homes and even banished from churches for sometime.
Ivy clings to almost anything as it grows, which symbolises fidelity and which reminds us of our human frailties in need of divine support.
It is an evergreen and so has lush greenery all winter long, and has been known to be portrayed as foretelling. Being evergreen has given ivy connections to eternal beauty and eternal life.
Like many other evergreen plants, ivy was used to help celebrate the winter solstice in early Europe, symbolizing friendship and brought into homes to drive out evil spirits. Ancient pagans used ivy to build wreaths and garlands all through the winter months.
Lavender is said to represent purity, devotion, serenity, grace and calmness.
Legend has it that the Virgin Mary dried her newborn's swaddling clothes by spreading them on a bed of lavender. The fragrant scent of lavender is said to be ‘the sweetness of life’. When dried it can be used whole for wreaths and centerpieces or crushed to use in sachets for closets or drawers or to scent a bath.
There’s a lot more to the symbolism of mistletoe than just kissing under it for good luck. It is strongly associated with the oak tree and had powerful meanings for the ancient Druids, who considered the oak male and mistletoe female. Mistletoe was therefore often used in blessing rituals for new unions between man and woman, and it was thought to offer protection for new marriages. When an expression of love or friendship is given within the presence of mistletoe, it is blessed.
The Druids also knew mistletoe shared a symbiotic relationship with deciduous trees. When a deciduous tree loses its leaves, it’s symbolic of death, dormancy, and rest. But, the evergreen mistletoe clings to these dormant trees, and even thrives with bird and woodland life, thereby symbolising life, rebirth and regeneration.
It is supposed to possess mystical powers which bring good luck to the household and ward off evil spirits. It was also used as a sign of love and friendship in Norse mythology.
A perennial herb which is said to have been placed in the manger on the night of the birth of Jesus, which then burst into bloom the moment the baby was born. It is also referred to as a ‘manger herb’, or ‘flee away’ which symbolise the flight of Mary, Joseph and Jesus to Egypt to escape Herod the Great.
Evergreen trees have long been associated with Christmas and their symbolic meaning is deeply rooted in history. Pagans thought they sustained the stars, moon and the sun, because the tree was a symbol of life, and because it didn’t lose its leaves it symbolised longevity, eternal and vigorous life, and friendship.
They were traditionally used to celebrate pagan winter festivals, with branches used to decorate homes during the winter solstice, to bring new life in the darkness of winter, in anticipation of the spring to come.
There are several theories as to how the evergreen tree went on to become a symbol of Christianity. One is via the English Benedictine monk Boniface, famous for his missionary work in Germany during the eighth century. To stop German pagans for making a sacrifice in front of an oak tree, he is said to have felled the tree and when he wasn’t immediately struck down by lightning as a consequence, he was able to convert the pagans to Christianity. Legend has it that a fir tree grew out of the fallen oak, which then became a symbol of Christ due to the triangular shape – representing the trinity — and it became a sign of everlasting life with God.
Poinsettia are native to Central America where they flower during the winter. The Aztecs had many uses for them including using the flowers (actually a special type of leaf known as bracts) to make a purple dye for clothes and cosmetics and the milky white sap was made into a medicine to treat fevers.
The shape of the poinsettia bracts and leaves are sometimes thought as a symbol of the Star of Bethlehem which led the Three Wise Men to Jesus. The red coloured leaves are said to symbolise the blood of Christ, while the white coloured leaves represent his purity.
Poinsettias have become inextricably linked to Christmas, perhaps due to a Mexican folktale. It is said that there was once a poor Mexican girl called Pepita who had no present to offer to the baby Jesus at her local Christmas Eve service. She didn't know what she could give, so she picked a small handful of weeds from the roadside and made them into a small bouquet. She felt embarrassed because she could only offer this small present to Jesus. In the chapel she knelt down and put the bouquet at the bottom of the nativity scene. Suddenly, the bouquet of weeds burst into bright red flowers, and everyone who saw them were sure they had seen a miracle. From that day on, the bright red flowers were known as the 'Flores de Noche Buena', or 'Flowers of the Holy Night'.
Rosemary is one of the most beautiful and fragrant of the seasonal herbs. According to folklore, it will bring happiness for the coming year to anyone who smells it on Christmas Eve. It represents remembrance for special friends, love, friendship and loyalty.
During the flight into Egypt, Mary spread the infant Jesus’ garments on a rosemary plant to dry. The flowers, originally white, turned blue and acquired the sweet scent they have today. Perhaps that’s why another name for rosemary is ‘Mary’s tree’.
Another legend claims that at midnight on January 5, the ‘old Christmas Eve’ (according to the new Gregorian calendar), rosemary plants will simultaneously burst into flower in celebration of Christmas.
Rosemary plants add attractiveness and fragrance to holiday wreaths, rosemary topiaries as small Christmas trees, and for using at individual place settings on the holiday dinner table.
Legend also holds that Mary and the infant Jesus hid in a large blooming sage bush when Herod the Great was searching for them. For this reason, sage is known as the herb of immortality, as well as representing health and happiness.
Sage is commonly used in culinary dishes, particularly at Christmas.
Wild thyme (Thymus serpyllum) is said to have been collected from the fields outside of Bethlehem to make a soft bed for Mary during the birth of Jesus, and so is often referred to as a ‘manger herb’.
It is a pungent herb, thought to have antiseptic properties and was burned as incense later in history by the Greeks. It is said to provide courage to face the darkness of the long winter nights and so is associated with bravery.
Today thyme is a popular culinary seasoning but can be used in dried flower arrangements, bouquets, and potpourri during the holiday season.
I hope reading this has given you a warm and fuzzy glow and has put you in the mood for the Christmas festivities. If you have any plant folklore you'd like to share, I'd love to read it so please tag me on your social media post so I don’t miss it.
Take care and stay safe.
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