December is a month filled with a diversity of cultural and religious celebrations, but Christmas, in particular, is a holiday strongly associated with plants. Much botanical symbolism has existed in other cultures, long before the advent of Christianity, and was carried over into the Christian faith as teaching tools or as religious symbols. Today, many of these plants are chosen just because of how well they perform in a home landscape, but sometimes it’s interesting to know a little bit more about them, from a historical perspective. Over the next few weeks, I’ll try to feature several plants that have relevance to the spirit of the season.
Holly (Ilex spp.)
Probably the most common plant that comes to mind this time of year is the holly. A holly plant is eye-catching all year round but particularly in the middle of winter when many other plants have lost their leaves. There are more than 500 cultivated Ilex varieties in the United States and several native to Florida.
During holiday celebrations, hollies are used as wreaths and decorative plants, their bright green leaves and stunning red berries clearly representative of the good will and bright cheer associated with Christmas. Long before the celebration of Christmas, however, Celtic Druids believed that the evergreen nature of the holly helped to keep the earth beautiful when deciduous trees shed their leaves.
In Pagan religions, placing holly leaves and branches around the outside of one’s home during winter was considered a sociable and welcoming gesture to invited guests. Ancient Romans used holly to decorate their houses and temples for Saturnalia, the mid-winter feast (December 12th) in honor of the sun god Saturn. Holly was also exchanged as a symbol of kindness and friendship.
During the time the Romans celebrated Saturn, Christians celebrated the birth of Jesus Christ. Those early Christians adopted the tradition of decorating their home with holly, and it eventually lost its pagan association and became a symbol of Christmas.
The pointed leaves of the holly symbolize the crown of thorns Jesus wore at His crucifixion, the berries symbolize the blood of Christ, the white flowers represent the purity and birth of Jesus and the bitter bark represents the passion of Christ.