The use of Holly as a symbolic winter decoration, with its shiny, prickly
leaves and blood-red berries, goes back in history to the Celtic peoples of
Northern Europe, who decorated their homes with it during the time of the
winter solstice, or Yule.
The ancient Romans believed that holly warded off lightning strikes and
witchcraft and sent boughs of holly to friends during the festival of
Saturnalia, also celebrated at the winter solstice.
The early Christian Church retained many of the Celtic and Roman
traditions to help celebrate the birth of Christ. The early Celtic Christians
associated the prickly holly leaves with the crown of thorns from the
crucifixion and the red berries with the blood of Christ.
In South America holly is used in making matte, a type of tea drink
popular in Argentina. The wood of the holly tree is used in the manufacture of
pianos to make black keys due to its solid grain-less appearance.
Holly extracts have been used in folk remedies for dizziness,
hypertension, and even cancer for centuries. New studies from Ireland, as
reported in the New Scientist (December 1998), found that extracts from the
roots and bark of English holly contain chemicals that look promising for the
treatment of skin cancers and for strengthening the immunological effects of
There are about 400 species of holly. The only temperate or tropical
regions naturally lacking holly are western North America and Australia. They
are sometimes deciduous, but mostly evergreen trees and shrubs, with shoots
often angled and alternating leaves. Both males and females have white
flowers, but only females have berries. The red 'berries' are technically
drupes containing two to eight seeds. The white wood is tough and usually
Evergreen hollies are very hardy attractive trees and shrubs that are
ideal for temperate climates. European and Asiatic species are adaptable to
most soils and temperate climates, while native North American species usually
prefer a neutral or acid soil.
Mistletoe has no roots of its own and lives off the tree to which it
attaches itself. Without that tree it would die. Mistletoe was thought to be
sacred by ancient Europeans.
The Druids considered mistletoe to be a sacred plant and believed it had
miraculous properties which could cure illnesses, serve as an antidote against
poisons, ensure fertility and protect against the ill effects of witchcraft.
Whenever enemies met under the mistletoe in the forest, they had to lay down
their arms and observe a truce until the next day. From this has seemingly
come the ancient custom of hanging a ball of mistletoe from the ceiling and
exchanging kisses under it as a sign of friendship and goodwill.
Norsemen offer us a beautiful symbolic myth about mistletoe. The story
goes that Mistletoe was the sacred plant of Frigga, goddess of love and the
mother of Balder, the god of the summer sun. Balder had a dream of death which
greatly alarmed his mother, for should he die, all life on earth would end. In
an attempt to keep this from happening, Frigga went at once to air, fire,
water, earth, and every animal and plant seeking a promise that no harm would
come to her son. Balder now could not be hurt by anything on earth or under
the earth. But Balder had one enemy, Loki, god of evil and he knew of one
plant that Frigga had overlooked in her quest to keep her son safe. It grew
neither on the earth nor under ground, but on the trees. It was lowly
mistletoe. So Loki made an arrow tip of the mistletoe, gave to the blind god
of winter, Hoder, who shot it, striking Balder dead. The sky paled and all
things in earth and heaven wept for the sun god. For three days each element
tried to bring Balder back to life. He was finally restored by Frigga, his
mother. It is said the tears she shed for her son turned into the pearly white
berries on the mistletoe plant and in her joy Frigga kissed everyone who
passed beneath the tree on which it grew. The story ends with a decree that
who should ever stand under the humble mistletoe, no harm should befall them,
only a kiss, a token of love.
The eighteenth-century English credited mistletoe not with miraculous
healing powers, but with a certain social appeal in the form of a "kissing
ball." At Christmas time a young lady standing under a ball of mistletoe,
brightly trimmed with evergreens, ribbons, and ornaments, cannot refuse to be
kissed. Such a kiss could mean deep romance or lasting friendship and
goodwill. If the girl remained unkissed, she cannot expect to marry the
following year. Whether we believe it or not, it always makes for fun and
frolic at Christmas celebrations. Top Anglo-Saxon Mistletoe Myth Anglo-Saxons
believed the custom of kissing under mistletoe was connected to the legend of
Freya, goddess of love, beauty and fertility. According to legend, a man had
to kiss any young girl who, without realizing it, found herself accidentally
under a sprig of mistletoe hanging from the ceiling. Top Modern Day Mistletoe
Even if the pagan significance has been long forgotten, the custom of
exchanging a kiss under the mistletoe can still be found in many European
countries as well as in Canada and the United States. In some regions, if a
couple in love exchanges a kiss under the mistletoe, it is interpreted as a
promise to marry, as well as a prediction of happiness and long life. In
France, the custom linked to mistletoe was reserved for New Year's Day: "Au
gui l'An neuf" (Mistletoe for the New Year). Today, kisses can be exchanged
under the mistletoe any time during the holiday season.
The poinsettia is native to Mexico and Central America, where it grows in
moist, wet, wooded ravines and on rocky hillsides. It was named for Joel R.
Poinsett, who popularized the plant and introduced it to floriculture while he
was U.S. minister to Mexico in the late 1820s.
In warm climates the poinsettia grows outdoors as a winter-flowering leggy
shrub about 3 meters (10 feet) high; as a potted plant in northern areas it
rarely grows beyond 1 meter. What appear to be petals are actually colored
leaf like bracts that surround a central cluster of tiny yellow flowers. A
milky latex in the stems and leaves can be irritating to persons or animals
sensitive to it, but the claim that poinsettias are deadly poisonous is
Cultivated varieties are available with white, pink, mottled, and striped
bracts, but the solid red varieties, in several shades, remain in greatest
demand during the Christmas season.