History of holiday greenery
This time of year, mantles, stairways and front doors are festively decorated with holly, mistletoe and fresh evergreens. Since the holidays are about tradition for many people, chances are we decorate with these items because that's how our parents and grandparents did it. But there's really more to it than that. Each of these types of greenery has its roots in history.
Twigs and boughs
The Pagans also celebrated with twigs and boughs. Back then, “Pagan” meant “people of the country”. Their religion and customs revolved around nature.
The Romans celebrated a festival around Saturn and the winter solstice. It was a time of darkness, when it felt like everything was dying. But they made wreaths from holly because it was “evergreen.” They considered it a symbol of the cycle of the year, with the belief that light would return.
Holly in the thorns
Religious Studies professor Lynn Ross-Bryant says at first, early Christians wanted nothing to do with holly in their home. "But then, gradually, some traditions grew up about how holly had been woven into the crown of thorns on Jesus’ head at the time of the crucifixion, and that indeed the holly berry had been white, and after the blood of Jesus touched them, they forever after were red." Early Romans also believed that the cross on which Christ was crucified was made of holly wood.
We may associate mistletoe with getting kissed, but Ross-Bryant says a mistletoe was first associated with death in the Nordic regions. Frigga, goddess of love and beauty, wanted to make the world safe for her son, Balder. Everything on earth promised to do him no harm except the one plant Frigga overlooked, mistletoe. Loki, an evil spirit, made an arrow from the mistletoe's wood and killed Balder. Frigga's tears became the plant's white berries and revived her son. In her gratitude, Frigga promised to kiss anyone who passed under the mistletoe, just as we do today.
O, Christmas tree!
Continuing a custom that dates back to the 16th century, German immigrants were the first Americans to purchase and decorate Christmas trees, typically in the pine family.
Radio interview source: Lynn Ross-Bryant, religious studies professor, University of Colorado
Learn more about the history and folklore associated with holiday greenery:
Origins of Christmas traditions: Professor Ross-Bryant explains why we do what we do on Christmas.
Christmas history and traditions: How was Christmas celebrated centuries ago? Why do we hang mistletoe and eat candy canes? Find the answers to these questions and more.
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