Proverbs 22:6 – Train up a child in the way he should go, even when he is old, he will not depart from it.
Nature plays an important role in the winter holiday season, through its beauty and symbolism. This post highlights some of the ways nature is commonly used during the holidays and explains how these traditions originated. As with any theme relating to beliefs and practices, it is not my intent to upset or cause offense with the information I share. My goal with this post is to offer (for educational purpose) some cultural information that may not be well known regarding the origins of certain holiday customs and traditions we still take part in.
Christmas Tree: The Christmas Tree comes into our modern holiday traditions from Germany with origins in pre-Christian practices celebrating the Winter Solstice with a Yule Tree. Any evergreen plant or tree traditionally held special meaning in the winter because they maintain a green color throughout the year; thus a symbol of life in the dead of winter. As Christianity spread, some pagan customs were assimilated into its tradition resulting in a blending of holiday customs still in practice today. Victorian England’s Prince Albert is most credited with popularizing the modern tradition of the family tree inside the home. Another form of Christmas Tree practice is the idea of decorating an outdoor tree with food as a gift to the animals who live nearby. Night Tree by Eve Bunting is a story based on this idea and a wonderful example of this practice. My son and I really enjoyed it!
Holly & Ivy: Many aspects of modern-day Christmas celebrations are rooted in the ancient Roman celebration of Saturnalia, a pre-Christian winter festival of light honoring the Roman god Saturn. Holly was considered sacred to Saturn and thus commonly used, paving the way for its assimilation into later Christmas traditions. Holly’s green and red color combination also makes it a popular holiday decoration, as those are the primary colors associated with Christmas today. Ivy, a fast-growing vine, was customarily used because of it is association with the Roman god of wine, Bacchus (also known as Dionysus). In addition, ivy was held as a symbol of fertility because of its quickly growing nature. For this reason, the ivy was considered a female plant. An old English tradition reflects this common belief. It tells that if a holly was brought into the home, it was a foretelling that the master would rule the household for the coming year, whereas if an ivy was brought into the home, the mistress would rule instead. This common practice coupled the holly and ivy and is the main reason why they are referenced together during the holidays.
Mistletoe: Custom states that a man and woman who stand beneath a sprig of mistletoe are obliged to kiss; thus the mistletoe is often referred to as “the kissing plant.” Origins of mistletoe use can be traced back to the Celtic Druids who believed mistletoe had medicinal qualities and so it was venerated as a sacred plant. They often used it as a symbol for love, good luck and fertility. Later in Greek traditions, the mistletoe was associated with wedding ceremonies. The practice of kissing under the mistletoe gained popularity during the Victorian England Era.
Poinsettia: Much the same way the Lily is used during Easter, the Poinsettia is used as a traditional Christmas plant. The most popular is the red Poinsettia but a white version is also common during the holidays. According to legend, the Poinsettia was first referenced with Christmas in Mexico. The Legend of the Poinsettia by Tomie dePaola offers a nice overview in story book format. What’s interesting to note is that the red “flower” is not actually a flower, but rather red colored leaves. These beautiful sub-tropical plants are often given as gifts during the holidays.
Reindeer: Reindeer, also known as stag or caribou, are commonly depicted in natural winter holiday settings and mainly associated with the story of Santa Claus. The idea of flying reindeer pulling Santa’s sleigh may have its roots in Norse mythology. Reindeer were common in northern Europe, specifically Scandinavia, where Norse mythology originated. The best reference is Thor, the Norse god of Thunder, who was often depicted soaring through the sky in a chariot pulled by two large, horned magical goats. These mysterious creatures are said to best resemble reindeer.
Snow: Snow is a common theme during winter: scenes of white snow covering the landscape create a Winter Wonderland or White Christmas effect. Kids love to play in the snow, have snowball fights, make snow angels and create the ever popular snowman. Some people have enough snow to make an entire snow family! Even those who do not have natural snow crave the feeling of Christmas that comes with snow. That feeling seems to be rooted in the natural cycle of the seasons, connecting us with the beauty and spirit of Christmastime.
Star: Christian tradition states an especially bright star, often referred to as the Star of Bethlehem or Christmas Star, plays an important role in the story of the nativity. Astronomers are often asked about this bright Christmas star as many star-gazers venture outside looking for it. The star is linked to the Magi and is referenced in scriptures, as well as Christmas carols and poems. Was it an actual star or a planet? Is the same Star of Wonder still visible in our modern night’s sky? One place we can often see a star is on top of the Christmas Tree to remind us of that blessed night.
Online Story: Why The Evergreen Trees Never Lose Their Leaves by Florence Holbrook