Sparkling lights on a towering pine tree, the winter season wouldn’t be complete without this iconic imagery, but it’s not just the Christmas tree that deserves some attention! Though the cold in many parts of the northern hemisphere means a period of dormancy for most plants and flowers, a few sturdy varieties not only endure but have become synonymous with the season. From ancient myths to modern traditions, here are some of the most popular seasonal decorations, and how you can incorporate them into your celebrations!
Crazy for Conifers
Conifer trees, often called evergreens, don’t lose their color or shed their leaves (or needles) in the winter. This makes them the perfect greenery for holiday festivities. Varieties of cypress, spruce, fir, and others can be found year round in abundance, and while these trees are the quintessential modern Christmas decoration, the tradition goes back thousands of years.
Ancient Celtic Druids saw evergreen trees as sacred objects that represented everlasting life. They used cuttings to decorate temples and perform rituals during the winter solstice. Ancient Egyptians recognized the trees as symbols of the Sun God, Ra, while the Romans similarly used boughs during the Winter Solstice celebration of Saturnalia. In the pagan traditions, the Winter Solstice was the end of that year’s harvest, so the trees that stayed green through winter were seen as a promise that crops would return again in the Spring. They symbolized new growth and fruitfulness.
The trees are a physical reminder of fortitude through the long winter, but also held spiritual meaning even before they became associated with the Christian holiday. The Vikings used wreaths and brought whole trees inside their homes for protection from evil spirits that they believed the cold brought on. The burning of logs from these pine trees eventually turned into the tradition we now know as the Yule Log.
Similar traditions by ancient tribes in what is now modern day Germany eventually turned into what we know as the Christmas Tree. German Christians adopted the tradition of bringing evergreens into their home and adorned them with apples, to symbolize the Garden of Eden, as well as other edible decorations like nuts and cookies. Eventually candles, angels, and other ornaments were added. The tradition of early Christmas Trees, first known as “Paradise Trees”, was brought with Germans as they began to emigrate to other parts of the world. It remained largely a foreign custom in their new lands and wasn’t until nearly 300 years later that it became a more universally accepted symbol of Christmas. Queen Victoria of England encouraged her husband Prince Albert to set up a tree at the palace in the way he had as a boy in Germany. The tree was featured in the London News and soon became a fashionable holiday accessory in Victorian Era Christmas celebrations. It was canonized further with depictions in popular literature including “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens, and “The Night Before Christmas” by Clement Clarke Moore
Evergreen Tips! You can never go wrong with a little extra green. Add cuttings to holiday bouquets or arrangements for a boost of green filler and an iconic winter holiday feel. Varieties like Leyland Cedar, with soft leaves and long-lasting color, keep decorations vibrant throughout the season.
Berries for the Ball
Similar to pine trees, Holly keeps its luster throughout the winter season. It is also a popular adornment for Winter Solstice rituals and celebrations. Holly was considered the sacred plant of Saturn, the God of agriculture and time in Ancient Rome. It was a popular decoration during the festival of Saturnalia and often given as gifts in a wreath. Early Roman Christians were said to have put Holly leaves on their doors in order to avoid persecution, but as Christianity slowly gained dominance, Holly became associated with the celebration of Christ’s birth in December. European pagans also used Holly in decoration and even put sprigs in their hair. They believed the green leaves and bright red berries kept the earth beautiful during a time when other plants went away.
Mistletoe was another sacred plant to Ancient Druids. They believed that it could protect against thunder, lightning, and other evils. The cutting of mistletoe from the forest was a sacred event done by Druid Priests. People would then hang sprigs from their doorway for protection. Celtic peoples thought it had great healing powers, in fact the word mistletoe in the ancient Celtic language means, “all-heal”. It became a universal symbol of both protection and good luck for anyone who could possess it.
The modern tradition of kissing under the mistletoe could possibly have been passed down from the Norse myth of Frigga, Goddess of Love. Frigga was the mother of Balder, the God of the Summer sun. The story goes, that after Balder had a dream about his death, Frigga became so frightened that she went to every element, plant, and animal on earth and asked them to make a promise not to harm her son. But the God Loki realized that she had forgotten the lowly mistletoe, and so fashioned an arrow with it on the tip. He gave it to the winter god, Hoder, who shot Balder in the heart. Frigga wept so bitterly that her tears became the white berries and eventually her love restored him. She was so overwhelmed with joy at his return that she kissed anyone who passed beneath the tree on which the berries grew.
It is easy to see how this story could be adopted to a Christian interpretation of life conquering death, as well as a flirtatious party game. The tradition of kissing under the mistletoe became popular in 18th Century England where it was often hung at balls. A girl standing under a ball of mistletoe could not refuse a kiss. If she remained unkissed it could be seen as a bad omen that she would not be married within the next year. Today, mistletoe remains a fun and flirty part of many holiday celebrations.
Get the Look!
True Mistletoe is actually a parasite on trees and does not have roots of its own. Try Snow White Hypericum Berries to get those magical white pearls. They make the perfect accent to wedding bouquets and centerpieces for extra romance and revelry!
Pepperberry is the perfect substitution for Holly paired alongside cut flowers in arrangements. It’s a green filler and a little extra pop of holiday cheer.
Poinsettias on Point
In most of North America, you can hardly walk out the door in December without tripping over a Poinsettia. Often given as gifts of live plants during Christmas, these unique plants have become a holiday staple.
Poinsettias are indigenous to Mexico and were originally used by the Aztecs for medicinal remedies and to make colorful red dye. It is known by many different names around the world including Flor de Noche Buena (Christmas Eve Flower) in Mexico and Guatemala; Flor de Pascua (Easter Flower) in Spain; and “The Crown of the Andes” in Chile and Peru. In North America, the name Poinsettia comes from the United States ambassador to Mexico, Joel Roberts Poinsett, who sent the plant back to South Carolina and began propagating it in 1825. The association with Christmas began much earlier, however.
The legend began in 16th century Mexico and tells of a poor little girl, sometimes referred to as Pepita or Maria, who had nothing to give as a gift for Jesus’s birthday. An angel appeared to her and told her to gather weeds from the roadside. When she brought them to the church altar, crimson blossoms sprouted from the weeds and became poinsettias. Franciscan friars in Mexico included the Poinsettia in Christmas decorations as early as the 17th century. The star-shaped leaf pattern was said to symbolize the Star of Bethlehem, and the red color represented the blood of Jesus.
Paul Ecke Jr. is largely credited for bringing the Poinsettia into the North American consciousness during the Christmas season. His family was one of the first to sell and distribute the flower on a large scale in the 1900’s. He sent free plants to television studios for them to display during the holidays and even appeared himself on shows including The Tonight Show and Bob Hope’s Christmas Special to promote them. With the classic Christmas colors of red and green, it wasn’t long before the poinsettia was recognized as the ultimate Christmas flower. There is even a national Poinsettia Day, on December 12!
Though Poinsettia plants do flower, the red blooms are actually colored leaves called bracts. Cyanthia, the small clusters of red, yellow, and green flowers can be found in the center surrounded by the red bracts.
Poinsettias are usually sold as potted plants so they can be hard to incorporate into a diverse arrangement. For a festive alternative, try Amaryllis. The shape of the petals mirror the star-shaped leaves and varieties of deep red and white make it a perfect centerpiece for holiday display. The Candy Cane Amaryllis, with its festive white and red combo, will add a little extra playfulness while still oozing elegance.
A Rose for Christmas
The Helleborus Niger, or Christmas Rose, gets its colloquial name from the fact that it is able to bloom in winter and has a similar holiday myth to that of the poinsettia. Native to Europe and Western Asia, the story goes that a young shepherd girl cried because she had nothing to give the baby Jesus. An angel appeared and brushed aside the snow on the ground to reveal the perfect blossoms of the Hellebore shimmering beneath.
These flowers are extremely hardy evergreen perennials. They can stand up to the cold and continue to bloom throughout the winter and early spring. With a variety of color from ivory to eggplant, hellebore is a great choice for both classic and modern styles.
Stunning flowers can add a dash of glamour and charm to a posh gala or a cozy gathering by the fire. Winter is an ideal time to dress up indoor spaces with life and color.
Check out the winter seasonal combo packs for more ideas on how to pair flowers and greenery for the perfect holiday cheer!